With the hunters and their hounds closing fast, Florida’s black bears are in dire need of another savior like J. Ben Rowe.
Rowe, as much as anyone, was responsible for the state ban on bear hunting back in 1994. The Gainesville weekly newspaper publisher managed to rouse so much angry sentiment against bear hunting that the Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission (forerunner of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission — the FWC) finally bowed to public pressure.
With the FWC planning to revisit the issue Wednesday, wildlife activists fear that Ben Rowe’s legacy could be undone.
Not that Rowe, a member of the commission back in the 1990s, ever intended to stop the bear killings. Quite the opposite. In November 1991, the commissioner, who described himself as a “consumptive user of wildlife,” took a hunting trip to Columbia County and killed himself a 315-pound male black bear that had been cornered by a pack of hunting dogs.
It was peculiar timing. Environmentalists were stirring up considerable public support for a ban against hunting the dwindling sub-species, Ursus americanus floridanus. Three months before the commissioner’s hunting trip, the state’s entire 21-member congressional delegation had signed a letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service demanding the addition of the Florida black bear the federal directory of threatened species — a status that would have precluded hunting.
Rowe tried to tell reporters that “I participated in a black bear hunt only for educational purposes. I wanted to obtain firsthand knowledge about an issue I must consider as a member of the commission.”
He didn’t help himself when he suggested, “The bear hunter in the South, probably in America, is a lot more endangered than the bear.”
He called black bears “the biggest, meanest animal on the face of the earth.” (A 2011 University of Calgary study counted only 14 fatal black bear attacks in the lower 48 states since 1900). He complained black bears had become “the pawn of the animal protectionists.”
The more Rowe talked, the more pressure built for a ban. In November 1993, the commissioners unanimously voted to suspend sport hunting of black bears.
But that could end by this fall. On Wednesday, the FWC will consider a number of bear management measures, including the one sport hunters covet. “From what I’ve seen, they are pretty seriously contemplating a hunt,” said Laurie MacDonald, Florida program director for the Defenders of Wildlife.
Bears have made something of a comeback over the past couple decades, with maybe 3,000 clustered in various pockets around the state. But so too have the number of encounters with humans. Last year, there were four reported attacks.
Ostensibly, an annual hunt would reduce the state’s bear population to a less dangerous level. Except the bears that would be stalked by hunters in wilderness areas aren’t the problem animals. The troublesome bears are the ones hanging around the suburbs.
Julie Morris, an environmental scientist who had been appointed to the old Game and Freshwater Fish Commission by Gov. Lawton Chiles, told me by email that the hunting ban had been designed “to reduce human-caused mortality to bears.” She wrote, “Bears were dying on highways, hit by cars and habitat was being lost and fragmented at an alarming rate.”
Two decades later, she said, “bear roadkills have increased by 450 percent compared to 1994 and habitat loss and fragmentation continue as significant threats. These two main drivers of bear mortality are stronger now than ever, and adding recreational bear harvest as an additional mortality factor makes no sense.”
She added that the commission “doesn’t appear to be claiming that establishing a recreational bear hunt will directly reduce human bear conflicts.”
Most of those bear encounters are a stupid people problems. People feed bears. They fail to secure their garbage. They entice bears into their neighborhoods with food, then call 911 when the animals keep coming back. “It’s like inviting somebody to dinner and then shooting them,” MacDonald said.
She and other activists want the commission to get at the bear-human conflict problem by educating homeowners and by enforcing wildlife feeding laws. “And courts need to take this seriously,” she said.
It should be a boisterous FWC meeting in Jacksonville Wednesday. Sport hunters, of course, will argue that they know how to fix Florida’s bear problem.
Too bad Ben Rowe’s no longer around to argue on behalf of the hunters. The bears could use another reprieve.