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Calif. Delays Plan To Expand Black Bear Hunting

California wildlife officials on Wednesday delayed taking action on a proposal to expand the hunting of black bears in the state, saying public concerns haven't been fully addressed.

The decision by the California Fish and Game Commission means hunters will not be allowed to go into new territory when bear-hunting season starts this fall. The statewide limit on bears killed legally -- currently at 1,700 -- also would remain the same.

The commission voted 5-0 to allow the Department of Fish and Game more time to vet public concerns raised by conservation groups, animal welfare organizations, county officials and state lawmakers.

"I don't think there's any question, if we rile up the anti-bear hunting community, we're one initiative away from a ban on all carnivores like mountain lions and bears," said commissioner Michael Sutton.

The state has proposed allowing hunting for black bears in San Luis Obispo County, as well as parts of Inyo, Lassen and Modoc counties.

State wildlife officials also want to eliminate the cap on the number of bears that can be killed each season so they can have the flexibility to decide when the season should end.

California's bear population has climbed from fewer than 10,000 bears in early 1980s to 38,000, and the hunting proposal is expected to have a negligible affect on the bear population, said Doug Updike, an ecologist at the Department of Fish and Game.

About 25,000 Californians are licensed to hunt bears from September through December.

Commission chair Jim Kellogg, who sat on the commission in 2002 when the panel expanded the bear hunt from 1,500 to 1,700, said anti-hunting groups were trying to scare the commission into shelving its proposal.

"I think yes, we have to be smart about how we do it, but we don't have to be scared," Kellog said.

In addition to expanding the locations where hunting is allowed, state wildlife managers have suggested that hunters be allowed to use more high-tech gadgets to help them hunt bears. Those include outfitting hunting dogs with global positioning devices and so-called tip switches that alert a hunter when a dog has chased a bear up the tree.

That has drawn ire from animal welfare groups who say such devices unfairly aid hunters. It has also given several of the commissioners pause about how hunters might be portrayed in the general public.

"It allowed people who chose to portray the commission, the department and hunters as not being stewards but being bloodthirsty beasts themselves," commission vice president Richard Rogers said.

The San Luis Obispo Board of Supervisors in March passed a resolution opposing bear hunting in their county. Earlier this week, 17 lawmakers in the Assembly and Senate urged the commission to reject the proposals, saying they lack "reasonable scientific justification."

Animal welfare groups also criticized the state for failing to take into account the other threats facing black bears, including illegal poaching and habitat destruction by human development.

"The state should be moving toward safeguarding bears more," said Brian Vincent, a spokesman for the Oregon nonprofit Big Wildlife.