DENVER (AP) – Colorado wildlife officials would have the flexibility to expand bear hunting dates to manage the animals’ growing population under a proposal that got preliminary approval Wednesday from House legislators.
Republican lawmakers sponsoring the legislation argued the measure is necessary because the bears’ booming population has raised safety concerns since the predators are interacting with humans more often. Some legislators, however, worried the bill would lead to bears being hunted when they’re most vulnerable.
The measure passed by a single vote. It needs one more round of voting before it heads to the Senate.
The bill seeks to repeal a voter-approved initiative that prohibits hunting bears from March 1 to Sept. 1. Voters overwhelmingly approved the initiative in 1992 over concern that female bears were being hunted in the spring when they’re taking care of their cubs.
Rep. J. Paul Brown, the Republican bill sponsor, tried to ease those concerns by modifying his proposal to remove the months of March, April and May as an option for bear hunting. But he said he wants the Division of Wildlife to have the ability to expand bear hunting in other months if necessary.
“This never has been about a spring bear hunt,” he said. “What this bill has been about is giving the authority to the Division of Wildlife to manage bears.”
“Let’s be clear what this bill does,” Rep. Matt Jones, a Louisville Democrat, said during the debate. “It gets mother bears three less months to rear their cubs before they can be hunted.”
The Division of Wildlife, which is not taking a position on House Bill 1294, said officials estimated the bear population at nearly 8,000 in the early 1990s. Additional research is under way, and wildlife officials say preliminary estimates show there are now 12,000 bears.
The agency said it was not discussing a spring bear hunt as an option, but that having additional season-setting flexibility would permit officials to allow bear hunting in the late summer in places where bear numbers are high.
Encounters between bears and humans have become more common as more people move to isolated and rugged areas of the state.
Rep. Carole Murray, a Republican from Castle Rock, said she supported the bill in its original form, “but there are those who want to accuse (the Division of Wildlife) of wanting to kill mother bears in the spring,” she said, explaining why she thought the amendment that eliminated spring months was necessary.
Wildlife rights group have argued that the bear population remained vulnerable, and its numbers could dwindle fast if more hunting is allowed.
Rep. Roger Wilson, a Democrat from Glenwood Springs, opposed the bill and said it was unnecessary.
“There is no proven relationship between increasing the time of the hunt and controlling the bear population,” he said.
– By Ivan Moreno, AP Writer (AP Writer writer Steven K. Paulson contributed to this report)
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)