The crowd overflowed two committee rooms and filled the building's two cafeterias before SB1221 by Democratic Sen. Ted Lieu passed its first committee test on a 5-3 vote.
Supporters say hound hunters use packs of dogs, often equipped with radio collars, to chase wild animals until they tire and run up a tree. The dogs used for this type of hunting are sometimes mistreated, they say.
"It's described as mild," Lieu, of Torrance, said before the committee voted. "This is not mild. You've got running dogs chasing a bear and-or bobcat. It's not mild because sometimes the bear fights back and kills the dogs or injures them. It's not mild because sometimes the dogs will tear apart the bobcat. And it's not mild because the bear runs and runs and runs until the bear is exhausted and climbs up a tree and the hunter goes and shoots the bear."
Lieu's office said several other states already ban the practice, including Arkansas, Colorado, Montana, Oklahoma, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming. Animal rights activists say it is inhumane for both the dogs and the wild animals they chase.
Hunters said a ban would infringe on a long-time sport and remove a tool for managing wildlife. Opponents wore orange pins reading "Revenge is not the answer," a reference to the chairman of the state game commission, who angered animal-rights activists earlier this year when he was photographed with a mountain lion he shot while using hounds during a legal hunt in Idaho.
It is illegal to hunt mountain lions in California.
Republican Sen. Doug LaMalfa said hunting is an issue for communities in rural parts of California to manage. He said banning the practice would have a devastating economic impact in some counties.
"We really have a good process here with the Fish and Game Commission and the Department of Fish and Game closely monitoring the impact of hunting. I'm an animal lover myself; I hate to see abuse, whether it's the wildlife or the hounds," said LaMalfa, of Willows. "By and large, the vast majority of folks are trying to have good conservation practices."
According to state wildlife officials, California has an estimated black bear population of about 30,000, which has grown from about 10,000 three decades ago. In recent years, between 1,500 and 1,800 bears are killed each year by hunters, about 45 percent were killed with the use of dogs.
The bobcat population is estimated to be 70,000. The state sold about 4,500 bobcat hunting tags last year. About 11 percent of the bobcats killed in California were killed with the use of dogs. The figures do not include illegal killings by poachers.
The bill now goes to the Senate Appropriations Committee.