After four serious attacks on Florida residents in little more than a year, the state’s wildlife agency will consider Wednesday whether to re-open hunting for black bears after a 20-year closure.
Florida’s black bear population — reduced from about 11,000 at the turn of the 20th century to less than 500 by the mid-1970s — now has rebounded to above 3,000. But the downside is increasing conflicts between the animals and the state’s growing human population.
In 2012, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission removed the black bear from the state’s threatened list and adopted a bear management plan that didn’t include hunting anytime soon. The agency planned to conduct a new population estimate this year. But faced with a flood of bear complaints — including three serious attacks on women in Orlando suburbs and one in the Panhandle town of Eastpoint since late 2013 — wildlife managers have decided to step up efforts to manage human-bear problems.
Commissioners, meeting in Jacksonville, will look at a host of bear management measures, including resuming public hunting, cracking down on residents and businesses that attract nuisance bears with careless trash disposal, allowing rural residents to obtain permits to take out bears when all other countermeasures have failed, and euthanizing problem bears instead of relocating them.
There is no record of anyone being killed by a bear in Florida, but that’s probably little consolation for 15-year-old Leah Reeder of Eastpoint. Leah was walking her Springer spaniel Ralph and listening to music on her phone around dusk in December when a female bear knocked her down.
“It was just kind of like a black blur,” Leah told ABC News. “I was down on the ground and ended up on my face. The bear was on my back, biting me. In school, they teach you to play dead. I just did that and it worked. It stopped biting me as soon as I stopped screaming.”
The bear had dragged the teen toward a ditch, but dropped her and fled. Leah and Ralph made it home, but Leah had to undergo surgery for wounds to her head, neck, back and arms.
As in the three recent attacks in the Orlando area — two involving women walking dogs and one mauled by a bear feeding on garbage — all the culprits were females with cubs. The suspects were tracked and put down by state wildlife officers.
“Human safety comes first, and we’re doing everything we can to address the conflicts,” said Thomas Eason, FWC director of habitat and species conservation. “Hunting is one tool in our toolbox. We don’t think hunting is going to be the solution to the conflicts. We do see it as a tool to reduce the overall number of bears as appropriate.”
Eason will brief commissioners about everything the state has done up to now to manage bears and ask them how they want to proceed. Any new rules would be taken up at later meetings.
Currently, 32 out of 41 states that have black bear populations allow hunting. If the FWC gives the go-ahead, Eason recommends a conservative approach: females with cubs and bears under 100 pounds would be off-limits; hunts would be limited, special opportunities for one week in the fall and would cost $100 for residents and $300 for non-residents; hunting with dogs or over feed would be prohibited; and hunters would have to check in with wildlife officials before and after hunting.
Residents of urban southeast Florida have sparse contact with bears. Occasionally, one will pop up in somebody’s yard in Weston. But the vast, watery wilderness of the Big Cypress National Preserve northwest of Miami-Dade County has a “strong, healthy bear population that could sustain hunting,” according to Eason.
One of those Big Cypress bears, estimated at 300 pounds, was struck and killed in early December by an SUV traveling on Snake Road near the preserve, setting in motion a series of events that resulted in another collision at the scene. Three men were killed and eight others were injured.
Lyle McCandless, president of the Big Cypress Sportsmen’s Alliance, says opening a controlled hunt for bears is a good idea.
“Don’t wait until there’s another attack,” McCandless said. “Now here we are with maulings happening. Unfortunately, this is something we should have addressed a lot earlier.”
But Don Anthony, communications director for the Fort Lauderdale-based Animal Rights Foundation of Florida, calls the notion of resuming bear hunting “ridiculous.”
“Just because their numbers are bouncing back, that’s not the time to start killing them,” Anthony said. “Taking out shotguns and blasting away at a few of them is not going to guarantee they’re the ones coming into the neighborhoods. These bears have been here longer than we have. We don’t need people to go out and slaughter these animals thinking they’re helping nature. Nature doesn’t need their help.”
A lively flood of comments from all sides of the issue are sure to come at Wednesday’s public session at the Jacksonville Hyatt Regency.
Ironically, the controversy stems from decades of careful bear management that has resulted in humans and animals seeing a lot more of each other than in the past.
Said Eason: “We’ve been successful; we now have more bears and we’re moving into sustainable coexistence.”