By KRISTEN WYATT
DENVER - Hibernating bears would be off-limits to Colorado hunters under a new rule state wildlife officials are considering following a debate over whether a 703-pound black bear was sleeping when it was killed in a cave late last year.
The enormous black bear shot in northwestern Colorado set what may be a state record. But it sparked public outrage after the hunter told a newspaper that he tracked the male bear to a cave and shot it after five hours waiting for the animal to emerge.
Though the hunter said the bear was awake and snarled at him, a flurry of angry e-mails and calls to state wildlife authorities resulted.
On Wednesday, the state Wildlife Commission decided unanimously to draft a rule banning the hunting of bears in dens.
Commissioners said they've never heard of anyone "den hunting" in Colorado because it's considered unsportsmanlike. But commissioner Dorothea Farris argued that if Colorado doesn't follow other states and specifically ban den hunting, the public could sour on bear hunting altogether.
"Are they going to support a valid and valuable activity if they hear about the killing of an 800-pound bear in its den and we do nothing about it?" Farris asked, exaggerating the bear's size a bit. The den-hunting ban could be final as soon as May.
No one at the meeting spoke in defense of killing bears in dens, but the regulation may not settle the question of ethical bear hunting. The hunter, Richard Kendall of Craig, Colo., said the bear snarled at him and flattened its ears before he shot it. And some experienced bear hunters have questioned whether Kendall's description of the cave as the bear's "den" is even accurate.
"Bears, especially males, don't usually hibernate in caves," said Brian Bachman, president of the North American Bear Foundation, a hunting and conservation group based in Pillager, Minn. Tracking a large bear to a cave and even venturing inside after it is considered fair chase, he said.
"The question is, what is a den? Everyone thinks it's a cave, but it rarely is. Every situation's going to be different, but if the bear's awake, it's snarling at him, I wouldn't consider that a denning situation," Bachman said.
Colorado hasn't yet drafted its ban on den hunting, so it's unclear how a den would be defined.
Bachman said most states ban den hunting, though Colorado wildlife officials could point to only three - Michigan, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Kendall did not return a call from The Associated Press about his kill in late November or say what he did with the animal.
Kendall told The (Grand Junction) Sentinel he was initially congratulated when people heard how big the bear was. But after word spread how the bear was killed, strangers started criticizing him.
"It was something that was positive at first, but then you get all these e-mails and letters and stuff," Kendall said.
Regardless of whether Kendall's black bear was truly hibernating, Colorado wildlife officials, along with hunters and conservationists, seemed to agree Wednesday that a ban on den hunting should be approved.
"We think it's critical that fair chase is the cornerstone of ethical hunting," said Suzanne O'Neill, executive director of the Colorado Wildlife Federation.
An outfitter and bear hunter at the meeting agreed.
"We don't go out and hunt bears in dens. It's just not done," said Scott Limmer, a regional director for the Colorado Outfitters Association.