More than 600 permits to hunt bears this fall were sold by mid-afternoon Monday, the first day in more than two decades that such licenses have been available in Florida.
The sale of the special-use permits — available throughout the state at tax collectors’ offices, online and at sporting goods stores that sell hunting and fishing supplies — began despite a lawsuit that was filed Friday against the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to try to halt the hunt.
“I do know the permits are being sold and being sold successfully,” Diane Eggeman, director of the commission’s Division of Hunting and Game Management, said Monday morning.
The state hasn’t estimated how many permits — which cost $100 for Florida residents and $300 for non-residents — will be bought by Oct. 23, the day before the hunt begins.
The hunt is planned to last two to seven days, depending on the number of bears killed.
Laura Bevan, southern regional director for the Humane Society of the United States, said people seeking permits are only doing so to get trophies, and she doesn’t believe the state is doing enough to limit the number of bears that will be killed.
“All the hunters will go into the woods at the same time. We’re really worried that it’s going to be a slaughterhouse,” Bevan said. “This is a population that only came off the threatened list 21/2 years ago. This is a population that’s under pressure from development, from poaching, from all kinds of things, and now we’re going to open up a hunt.”
The Humane Society supports but isn’t a party to the lawsuit seeking to stop the bear hunt. The lawsuit was filed in Leon County circuit court by the Seminole County-based environmental group Speak Up Wekiva.
“Even if we feel that the hunt is unethical and unscientific there may not be a legal way to stop it,” Bevan said.
The permits went on sale at 5 a.m. Monday. All but six of the first bear permits sold were to Florida hunters.
The state is seeking a 20 percent reduction in the bear population, which is estimated around 3,000. That percentage reduction includes bears dying naturally or getting killed by vehicles, as well as those killed in the hunt.
“We want to reach that minimum number, that harvest objective, so we can reach the stabilization of the populations,” Eggeman said.
The state hasn’t put a limit on the number of special-use bear permits that will be sold, but each hunter will be limited to killing a single bear during the week.
Eggeman said officials don’t expect the hunt to exceed bear-hunting quotas that will be set for each of the four regions of the state where hunting will be allowed — the eastern Panhandle, Northeast Florida, east-central Florida and South Florida.
The commission will set the final quota numbers for each region in September.
Other than to say they are confident a judge will support the commission’s approval of the bear hunt, state officials aren’t discussing the merits of the lawsuit.
The lawsuit contends the rules for the hunt go against a 1998 voter-approved constitutional amendment that created the commission as an independent body “to conduct management, preservation and conservation decision-making based upon sound science.” The complaint also claims the bear hunt is not based upon sound science and won’t reduce growing conflicts between bears and humans.
The lawsuit didn’t ask a judge to halt the commission from offering the permits.
But supporters of the lawsuit contend the permitting should wait until the courts rule on the lawsuit to reduce the risk of having to refund money to people who have paid.
Opponents of the hunt have argued that Florida’s increased human population is expanding into wildlife habitat and that the state should further implement non-lethal rules, such as bear-proofing trash containers, prohibiting people from feeding wild bears and cracking down on the illegal harvesting of saw palmetto berries, which is a staple of a bear’s diet.