WILTON – When Josh Brones turned on his pickup truck, Tanner, Sequoia and Dollar began to bark.
The three are treeing walker coonhounds, and these hunting dogs were ready to hunt. As Brones let them out of their kennel one by one, each ran a lap around the truck and then jumped into a crate in back.
"They're living animals with this overwhelming desire to get out and run and get out and hunt, and it would be tremendously selfish to deny them that opportunity," Brones said Tuesday. He was about to take them to a Glenn County spot just west of Maxwell where he often hunts.
His canines, and others like them, are central to the controversial practice of using dogs to hunt bears and bobcats. Senate Bill 1221, by Democratic Sen. Ted Lieu of Torrance, would ban their use. The Senate narrowly passed the measure, 22-15, in May. It's now pending in the Assembly.
"Using dogs to hunt bears and bobcats is cruel to the dogs," Lieu said in an interview Thursday. "It is cruel to the bears. It is cruel to the surrounding wildlife, and it violates what is known as fair chase."
It's a hot-button issue, with Brones and the 5,200-member nonprofit called California Houndsmen for Conservation, of which he's president, opposing the bill. Joining them are hunting and sportsmen's groups as well as cattlemen's associations. Opponents have packed Capitol hallways and legislative committee rooms during hearings.
Just as fervent on the other side are the Humane Society of the United States, which sponsored the measure, and other animal and environmental organizations.
The Humane Society points to a Mason-Dixon Polling and Research survey last year, which found that 83 percent of Californians oppose what's called bear or bobcat hounding. The group has produced a video showing footage of a pack of hounds attacking a bear as well as of a treed bear being shot.
The practice is unfair, the bill's proponents say.
"It ends with (the animal) stuck up a tree where the hunter's sole job is to walk up and shoot it or not," said the Humane Society's California state director, Jennifer Fearing. "That's not hunting. ... It is absolute harassment, and it is not a humane death for that bear whether the shot is clean or not. The last few hours of their lives are spent in terror."
Brones said that only 15 percent of houndsmen actually shoot the bears and that he's among the rest who let them go. He often goes hunting without any weapon at all.
Hounding is a lot of work for a hunter following dogs who are tracking a bear, he said.
"How could having to keep up with dogs that are running for three to 12 hours and up to 20 miles after bears not be challenging?" Brones asked.
Animal advocates also say the hunting dogs are often mistreated and that the chased animals are subjected to hours of distress.
But Brones argued that being hunted by dogs doesn't cause bears psychological trauma, adding that treed bears are often curious, not distressed, about the dogs barking below them. Some bears, he said, even take a nap until the dogs leave.
He also believes that using dogs to hunt bears is beneficial because it can teach bears certain behaviors, such as ranches to avoid, that can prevent them from being killed.
The animals "win because they don't have to die," Brones said. "The rancher wins because she is no longer experiencing damage to her way of living. Everybody wins that way, through that aversive conditioning."
Fearing said she's glad many houndsmen don't kill the bears or bobcats that their dogs track, but she believes it is "not acceptable" to chase an animal for hours for fun.
Fearing also said that dogs are often hurt during hunts, something that houndsmen should not want.
"It's dangerous, it's just fundamentally dangerous," Fearing said. "Bobcats and bears can mess up a dog pretty good."
Brones said his dogs and the dogs of houndsmen he knows have never had a serious injury. Some bill proponents have also argued that dogs are commonly left in the forest. Brones, who outfits his dogs with radio collars, says that isn't true.
Animal advocates also argue that the practice can affect animals other than bears and bobcats. Dogs often trespass on private property, Fearing said, and they don't know the difference between the animals they are allowed to hunt and the animals, like endangered species, that they cannot – claims that Brones denied.
His organization's bylaws contain what Brones called a morals clause that allows the president to remove any member convicted of repeated trespassing, mistreating their dogs, selling bear parts, or other hunting-related violations.
Fearing believes that even in the best-case scenarios, the practice of hounding is still dangerous.
"There are still significant risks associated with those dogs getting lost, those dogs getting injured, those dogs coming across other species and taking them because they're there," she said.
SB 1221 will next be heard by the Assembly Appropriations Committee after the Legislature returns from its summer recess in early August.
Lieu plans to introduce a companion measure to allow some exceptions to the ban, including scientific research and the guarding of livestock and crops. It would also let the state's Fish and Game Commission, on a four-fifths vote, reconsider the practice.