The hunt is on.
Despite months of protests and a lawsuit filed to stop it, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation commissioners on Wednesday took the final step in paving the way for an October bear hunt. Hunters will be allowed to kill up to 320 animals in bear country in four parts of the state.
The hunt will be the first in more than 20 years and narrowly passed after Commissioners Ron Bergeron and Robert Spottswood, who was appointed last month, objected to hunt rules that failed to include measures to limit the number of bears killed during the hunt’s first two days.
“You’re talking about an animal that’s an icon in this state,” Bergeron said at a field hearing that filled a Fort Lauderdale hotel ballroom with hunters in boots and conservationists waiving signs and carrying an oversized stuffed teddy bear.
First approved in April, the hunt has already drawn more than 1,900 hunters. No limit has been set on the number of permits that will be sold. Hunters will have at least two days starting Oct. 24 to kill bears in four populated areas in the Southwest Florida, North and Central Florida, and the Panhandle. The hunt may be called off after the third day, once the quota of 320 is reached.
Wildlife officials say the hunt is needed to control a growing number of bears squeezed out of their habitat and drawn into neighborhoods by open trash cans. But environmentalists fear the move is in response to a spate of bear attacks over the last year and say bears would be better controlled by curbing human behavior.
“If we’re killing nuisance bears as opposed to managing or relocating them, then why would a hunt even need to take place?” asked Vivienne Handy, an ecologist with Quest Ecology in Wimauma.
In an effort to derail the hunt, a lawsuit was filed in Central Florida alleging that the state wildlife commission violated its mission to preserve and protect wildlife.
“This commission ignores science and ignores public will,” said Lake Mary activist Chuck O’Neal, who filed the suit and accused the commission of “cherry-picking” data to support the hunt. “It is based on junk scienc.e … Peer-reviewed studies have found no correlation between bear hunting and bear conflicts.”
But sportsmen have supported the hunt: “This is biology folks,” said Newton Cook, director of United Waterfowlers of Florida. “This is not Disneyland out there.”
Once near extinction and numbering in the hundreds, the Florida black bear rebounded after the state began efforts to protect it in the 1970s. Hunts or harvests were banned in 1994. But in 2012, as numbers surged to over 3,000, wildlife managers drafted a management plan that included hunts as a way to control the growing number of bears, mostly in central and north-central Florida and parts of the Panhandle.
Up until the attacks, wildlife officers typically dealt with nuisance bears by warning residents to do a better job of securing trash, said FWC bear management coordinator David Telesco. That changed after a series of attacks in Seminole County late last year and early this year prompted the state to begin killing nuisance bears.
“The four attacks happened with bears that were regulars, and the only fault is they lost their fear of people,” Telesco said.
So far this year, the state has killed 70 nuisance bears, Telesco said. Last year, just 34 were killed the entire year.
But conservationists have complained bitterly that the state needs to do more to educate residents and promote bear-safe trash cans, which one state study found can reduce complaints by up to 95 percent. In the last decade, the state has struggled to gain steam on its trash can program, with just $160,000 in funding. The hunt, however has renewed attention on the trash can program, said Tom Eason, FWC’s director of the Division of Habitat & Species Conservation.
“There’s definitely some feeling we’re taking it out on the bears and we’re not pushing enough on local communities,” he said. But getting trash haulers on board has proven difficult. “It’s not rocket science. We know it works.”