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Utah Wildlife Board members Thursday reinstated a controversial statewide spring bear hunt after a 14-year absence, saying females should not be overly affected, as once feared.
Concerns that too many females were being killed in the spring, leaving orphan cubs, led the state to drop the hunt after the 1992 season. But the results of a five-year study showed that was not the case, officials said.
"We conducted the study to confirm what we always suspected, but were unable to back up with research," said Kevin Bunnell, nongame coordinator for the Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR). "The most responsible way to manage a wildlife population is to protect the female portion and that is why we recommended going back to the spring hunt."
The seven-member Wildlife Board, appointed by the governor, unanimously approved the DWR proposal to allow bear hunting from April 8 to May 31, starting this spring.
The study, conducted by Brigham Young University and the DWR, showed that 31 percent of bears killed by Utah hunters in the fall were females. In comparison, 21 percent of bears taken in the spring were females.
Hunt critics at the meeting voiced their concern about returning to a spring hunt, or about offering a bear hunt at all.
"I'm here representing the bears. I oppose the bear hunt in any size, shape, form or method. It is not necessary to hunt bears in Utah," said Cheryl Smith, of Salt Lake City. "The bear is my natural resource, too."
The board approved 172 public permits for this spring and another 70 for the fall hunt (Aug. 26-Sept. 30 and Nov. 1-26). Thirteen permits for black bear were also given to state American Indian tribes. Counting the 13 permits allocated to the tribes, there is an overall increase of 17 from the 238 offered last year.
Wildlife officials said the hunt will help protect females in the long run.
"It is only in the spring when a majority of reproductive females can clearly be identified as females," said Hal Black, a professor of zoology at BYU, pointing out that there are rare exceptions when cubs are not at their mother's side in the spring. It is illegal for a licensed hunter to shoot a bear in the company of cubs.
Female bears also typically emerge from their winter dens later in the spring than males, offering a little more protection to mothers with cubs. For that reason, the Wildlife Board declined to approve the requests of houndsmen and two of the state's five Regional Advisory Councils (RACs) to push the spring season into June.
Black's study showed an increase in the percentage of females killed climbed later in the spring when they were more active.
New board member Keele Johnson, of Blanding, said he understood concerns that spring hunting resulted in orphaned cubs, but stressed the Wildlife Board was doing the right thing.
"There has been a lot of controversy with some people for having spring bear hunts. But it has been pointed out by research that fewer females are killed in the spring than the fall. The No. 1 killer of cubs is the male bear," Johnson said. "This allows more females to live and more cubs to live because we are eliminating the No. 1 killer of cubs. This is the exact thing we should have done to create a larger and healthier bear population in the state."
Males are known to kill cubs to bring the mothers, who reproduce on average every other year, back into estrus.
The number of black bears, the only species in Utah, is unknown because of the relusive nature of the animals, but there are believed to be more than 800. Wildlife models indicate Utah's bear population is healthy, Bunnell said.
Also Thursday, the Wildlife Board granted final approval for 200 hunting permits to be applied for and drawn at a Wildlife Convention being held in January 2007. The permits are not in addition to permits decided upon by management plans and they will be available to Utah hunters in a similar fashion to the state's big game draw.
Five national sporting/conservation groups, Foundation for North American Wild Sheep, Mule Deer Foundation, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Wild Turkey Federation and Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, are expected to host the event.
Utah's 2006 bear hunt
As expected, the Utah Wildlife Board on Thursday approved more than 70 hunting and fishing fee increases for 2007 proposed by the Division of Wildlife Resources to help deal with a $2 million budget deficit.
The Legislature will have ultimate say on the fees.
Visit the Tribune's Web site at http://www.sltrib.com for Thursday's story on the plan.
Spring: 172 public, eight tribal
Fall: 70 public, five tribal.
Total: 242 public, 13 tribal
Spring hunt/pursuit season: April 8-May 31
Fall hunt: Aug. 26-Sept. 30 and Nov. 1-26
Source: Division of Wildlife Resources