Black bears within the Wild and Scenic section of the Rogue River historically have been off limits to hunters, prized more as apex fauna to view while floating the Wild Rogue than as sausage, burger meat and perhaps even a floor rug.
But biologists say times have changed, and so have the population and bravado of bears in the Rogue corridor, as they brazenly raid rafting camps and increasingly see people as a food source instead of something to fear.
Following a record year of bear complaints here, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is looking to allow hunters into the Wild Rogue to hunt black bears off riverside gravel bars during limited times as a way to reduce bears and bear-human conflicts.
Having hunters shoot bears in season instead of having the government “administratively” kill them is seen as a way to increase hunting opportunities while culling animals causing problems that even hot-wired fences at remote campgrounds can’t seem to solve.
“It’s not going to fix the problem, because there are always going to be bears down there,” said Steve Niemela, ODFW Rogue District wildlife biologist.
“We talk about using every tool in our toolbox, and hunting is one of them,” Niemela said. “But our main tool is education and getting people to comply.”
Niemela said he doesn’t expect large numbers of bear hunters to float the Wild Rogue or hike the 34 miles in and out to hunt black bears.
“But, for the people who do it, it should be a good experience,” Niemela said.
The agency is getting push-back from groups such as Eugene-based Predator Defense, whose leaders argue that killing bears is the wrong way to solve what they call a human problem of bears linking humans with easy food.
“It’s reflective of what we call ‘The Killing Agency,’” Predator Defense Executive Director Brooks Fahy says.
“They shouldn’t be killing any bears down there. That’s prime bear habitat. People float that river to see bears, not just to fish.”
Rules currently state that bear hunting is closed on all land within 1 mile of the Rogue between Grave Creek at river mile 68 and Lobster Bar about 16 miles from the ocean.
The new proposal would allow bear hunting from the Wild and Scenic section’s downstream border at Watson Creek to Lobster Creek during spring and fall bear seasons.
It would also allow bear hunting within the Wild and Scenic section in November and December during the fall general season and in April as part of the spring season.
Bear hunting would be banned from May 1 through Oct. 31, which includes the summer permit-only floating season on the Wild and Scenic stretch.
The area can be accessed by drift boat, raft, kayak or the Rogue River Trail.
The proposal comes after last year’s Forest Service report of human-bear interactions in the Rogue’s Wild and Scenic section during the permit-only season that saw bears spotted by 171 trip-leaders and only 30 rafting parties going bear-less.
Of the sitings, three were of bears on boats with sleeping humans, with 20 others with bears in camp with equipment or gear damage and no food rewards, records show. Another 55 reports were of bears close enough to camp to requite “vigorous deterring action,” the report states.
The bear proposal is one of two higher-profile changes to hunting seasons now up for consideration for 2021 in Southern Oregon. The other change would push the general rifle bull elk season in the Cascades from October to November.
The agency typically holds public meetings to gauge input on proposals, usually coinciding with Oregon Hunters Association meetings in Medford and Grants Pass.
However, due to COVID-19, the traditional format has been scrubbed in favor of a video-based format in which ODFW biologists plan to discuss proposed changes in a YouTube video then take call-in comments during a “listening session” set for 5 to 7 p.m. Tuesday.