Animal-welfare activists claim a proposed spring black bear hunt, meant to draw more of the state's urban hunters to southwestern Oregon and away from coastal forests near Eugene, will lead to rampant orphaning of cubs.
But proponents say the numbers don't support the fear that a massive illegal killing of sows with cubs would occur should the new 250-tag Siskiyou Plus hunt begin next spring, and that shooting sows with cubs under a year old is illegal.
"We are strongly opposed to the practice of spring bear hunting, primarily because it leads to the orphaning of cubs," said Scott Beckstead, the senior Oregon director of the Humane Society of the United States.
The proposed hunt is up for consideration Friday by the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission, which is meeting at The Expo in Central Point.
More than 150 letters, most of them identical form letters supplied by HSUS, have flooded the commission file for this proposal, which is one of several the commission is considering for 2015.
Along with HSUS, a coalition of groups opposed to the hunt includes Cascadia Wildlands, Center for Biological Diversity, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, Oregon Wild, Predator Defense and Soda Mountain Wilderness Council.
Mark Vargas, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist in Central Point who proposed the hunt, said the season of April 1 through May 31 is crafted to ensure more hunting pressure on male boars then sows, which become more active in June.
While cubs orphaned by a hunter-killed mother may occur, ODFW has not had a confirmed case here in at least several years, Vargas said.
"People see a cub in a tree and they always think it's orphaned," Vargas said.
The current spring bear hunt has a 9 percent hunting success rate, with about 27 percent of the bears killed being sows, according to ODFW statistics.
If applied to the Siskiyou Plus' proposed 250 tags, that statistically would lead to the expectation that six sows would be killed in the hunt.
Beckstead said he considers the numbers of hunter-killed sows "grossly unreported" and that he believes both ODFW and hunters have incentives to do so.
"If you shoot a lactating mother, you have a strong disincentive for reporting that to the authorities because you know it's against the law," Beckstead said.
The agency has no statistics on how many sows killed in hunts may have been caring for young cubs.
Lt. David Gifford, of the Oregon State Police Fish and Wildlife Division, said he hears of one or two such cases annually in the region, including both the spring hunt and the fall general season.
"I don't think that's a problem," Gifford says. "Does it happen? Yes, occasionally. But we don't seem to have too many problems. But that is just what we know of."
The proposed hunt, whose tags would be doled out to hunters in the spring controlled-hunt lottery, would be in conjunction with the current Southwest Spring Bear Hunt, in which 4,400 tags were sold this year on a first-come, first-served basis. It is intended to spread hunters across numerous southwest hunting units.
The majority of bears are killed by hunters in the Siuslaw Unit, likely because it's the closest unit to the Willamette Valley and far outstrips the other regions in numbers of hunters, Vargas said.
Last year's Southwest Spring Bear Hunt saw 225 bears killed by hunters, with 95 of the bears killed in the Siuslaw and Tioga units close to the Willamette Valley, according to ODFW statistics.
Only 10 of those spring bear kills came in the Applegate Unit of western Jackson and eastern Josephine counties, an area with the highest known bear density in Oregon, Vargas said.
By comparison, 89 bears were killed by hunters there in the fall general season — the most of any hunting unit in Oregon.
It was this disparity that Vargas said led to his proposal to draw more hunters into bear-rich Southern Oregon.
"This is one method we're trying," Vargas said. "We'll see if it works."
In past years, raising the Southwest Oregon Spring Bear Hunt tag numbers by 500 or more has drawn scant opposition before the commission. Beckstead said most activists have focused primarily on cougar issues in Oregon, but there is growing interest in managing black bears and hunting for them here.
"Judging from the level of opposition to spring bear hunting, I think the time has come for us to start the conversation of ending spring bear hunting in Oregon," Beckstead said.
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.