Editor of Bear Hunting Magazine Clay Newcomb with black bear harvested in Oklahoma

Some lawmakers are facing an unbearable choice when it comes to deciding the fate of some of the state’s newest residents living in southeastern Oklahoma.

Much like the Sasquatch reputed to explore the same wooded areas, these furry residents tend to be elusive loners who prefer to keep to themselves far from the halls of the Capitol where lawmakers are poised to decide their fate.

It was just eight years ago that wildlife officials finally decided there were enough black bear living in the four-county region of LeFlore, McCurtain, Latimer and Pushmataha counties that it was safe to issue hunting licenses — for $100 a year.

That fee has become a bone of contention in the halls of the Capitol, because, for the most part, the state’s 281,560 lifetime hunting license holders are exempt from licensing and tag fees.

The black bear remains one of the lone exceptions.

“Anybody that you ask that has a lifetime hunting license, they will tell you the same exact thing that I’m telling you — they bought it under the pretense that you’ll never have to buy another tag or license again,” said Rep. Rick West, R-Heavener. “Basically what they’re doing is they’re just reneging on what they promised.”

West has proposed a new law that’s slated to be heard as early as next week in the House that would allow lifetime license holders to hunt bear without paying any fees.

“It is not about wiping out bears,” West said. “Now that’s what you’re going to hear, but that’s not what this bill is about. This bill has nothing to do with bear hunting. It is all about doing the right thing.”

West, who is a hunter himself, said he’s not interested in hunting the animal — just in making things right for lifetime hunters.

The license is more expensive than most, admits J.D. Strong, director of the state’s Department of Wildlife Conservation. But he says there’s a good reason for that.

“It’s really a way to kill two birds with one stone so to speak by reducing hunting pressure while at the same time helping to fund the important research that goes into maintaining a sustainable hunting population of black bears in Oklahoma,” he said.

Strong said when hunters first started purchasing lifetime hunting licenses in 1967, no one ever envisioned that anyone would be able to hunt bears in Oklahoma.

“It was never promised to give people permission to hunt everything,” Strong said. “This is a new species to come onto the hunting scene for us.”

After years of declines, conservationists invested hundreds of thousands of dollars into an effort to rebuild the state’s black bear population.

Today, nearly 2,500 black bears live in parts of southeastern and northeastern Oklahoma. The slowly burgeoning bear population in the northeastern part of the state is still too fragile to support hunting.

While the state doesn’t limit how many licenses it sells or the number hunted with bows and arrows, it does limit the number of bears gun-toting hunters can kill to 20.

Last year, hunters purchased 463 bear licenses. They killed 57 bears — 53 using bows and arrows and four with black powder rifles, Strong said.

The money generated by the license fee helped fund the state’s more than $300,000 research initiative to ensure the health of the population and to make sure the bear population continues to grow so it can be hunted by future generations, he said.

“We certainly have concerns with the legislation as it is currently drafted,” Strong said.

Rep. Shane Stone, D-Oklahoma City, who also is a hunter, said he also has concerns about West’s measure. He said the measure is stirring up controversy and disagreement among the state’s most avid hunters.

“Whenever people went and got a lifetime hunting license, they didn’t expect to not have to buy bear tags,” he said.

Stone said removing the fees would eliminate a source of revenue for Strong’s agency, which like most departments has been hit with budget cuts, and limit the state’s ability to regulate bear hunters.

“I don’t think (hunters) would eradicate the population in the next year or anything drastic like that… but the last thing you want to do is get into a bad situation because of a decision we made this year,” he said.

From posts at The Daily Progress and The Duncan Banner.