Bear hunting opens in Florida, first time in 21 years

A black bear in the Florida Everglades in 2009. Photo Courtesy Ron Bergeron, Florida Wildlife Commission
A black bear in the Florida Everglades in 2009. Photo Courtesy Ron Bergeron, Florida Wildlife Commission Florida Wildlife Commission

The trucks lined up for a quarter mile down State Road 46 Saturday, their motors rumbling in the pre-dawn darkness, as hunters waited for the gates to open to the Rock Springs Run State Preserve for the first day of Florida's first bear hunt in 21 years.

Billy Girard sat in his Dodge 4x4, ready to take out either a deer or a bear using his muzzle-loading rifle. He bought his $100 bear hunt permit Friday at 11 p.m., just before the sales closed.

"It's the first time Florida's done it in what, 20 years? So I figured why not?" the Oviedo resident said. He was going deer hunting anyway, "so if a buck comes out, I'll shoot it, and if a bear comes out, I'll shoot that." A bear, he said, "would be a nice thing to have."

Just before 10 a.m., a pickup truck pulled in at the Rock Springs Run Wildlife Management Area, and state biologists climbed in back to unload a dead bear. They wanted to weigh it, take a hair sample for DNA testing, even pull out one its teeth to check its age.

They shoved it forward and a winch hoisted it in the air as a scale registered a weight of 298 pounds. Its tongue lolled out of its mouth, and saliva the color of strawberry jam spilled across the tailgate.

The hunter who shot it stood at a green table in the shade answering questions for a survey, a tight smile on her face, a pink cell phone shoved into the back pocket of her jeans.

Amanda Holmes, 23, said she spotted the bear 200 yards from her tree stand, and brought it down with her .343 Remington.

"I'm going to harvest all the meat and make a rug of the pelt," she said with a tight smile. "I'm sure we'll find a use for everything."

As Holmes and her brother Caleb drove off with their prize, a second and then a third pickup pulled in with more dead bears. The biologists swung into action all over again.

Meanwhile a team of observers from the environmental group Speak Up Wekiva snapped photos with their phones and tablets, and jotted down notes about the bears being brought in. One of the volunteer monitors was Astevia Willett of Largo. She said she didn't mind driving two hours over to Central Florida if it would help to save bears — even though she has never seen one outside a zoo.

"To me this is a very important thing," she said. "I'm an animal lover I believe all creatures have a right to live."

At 7:37 p.m. Friday, an appeals court shot down a last-ditch legal effort to halt Florida's first bear hunt since 1994 — and since bears were taken off the state's list of imperiled species in 2012.

The First District Court of Appeal denied the conservation group Speak Up Wekiva's petition for an emergency ruling blocking the hunt.

"Having exhausted all means of legal recourse, unfortunately for the state of Florida and its unique Florida black bears, the hunt of the Florida black bear will go forward," Speak Up Wekiva's attorney, Ralf Brooks, said.

At Lake Talquin State Forest — 10 miles from downtown Tallahassee, where anti-hunt protesters picketed the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission headquarters Friday — a gaggle of conservation officers and biologists waited eagerly for the first bear hunters to bring their kills.

Within the first hour of the checkpoint opening, a 130-pound male black bear, killed on private property nearby, arrived. Andrew Rapuzzi and his daughter Julie shot the bear early Saturday morning in their yard. They knew when it might come by — the bear has made a habit of spending the morning in their yard.

"Every morning at 7:30," he says. "Like clockwork."

So Saturday, when Julie spotted the bear as the sun was coming up, Andrew grabbed his crossbow and shot. From 40 yards away, he had a clean hit, right above the bear's abdomen.

Using a crossbow was important to the Rapuzzis, and so was the fact that the bear was on their land.

"I wouldn't shoot them in the forest. That's their ground," Andrew said. "We have to respect them."

The father and daughter have Apache heritage. The bow and arrow is the "Native American way," said Julie.

Andrew said he wanted to show his daughter, who just turned 16, the importance of their heritage. So after they killed the bear, they performed a sacred ceremony, putting sage and tobacco in the bear's mouth.

"It's just to help his spirit go to Creator," Andrew said.

By early afternoon, the crew at Lake Talquin State Forest had weighed and cataloged five black bears, including a female that topped 209 lbs. after being gutted.

As each pickup truck came in with a bear sprawled out in the bed, a biologist weighed the animal and took hair samples and a premolar. Scientists with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will use the information to build a database about the bear population across the state.

Hunters proudly talked about their kills but many were wary to share their names, fearing retribution people opposed the return of the bear hunt.

Many supporters of bear hunting see it as an important way to control the state's black bear population and prevent the animals from wandering into communities or harming people.

Still others, like Daniel Abbott, see the hunt in a more personal light. For him, Saturday was about family.

He remembers hunting bears as a kid in North Florida the last time it was legal 21 years ago. When the wildlife commission opened the hunt again, he saw it as a way for his family, who live near Tallahassee, to bond.

"It gives me something to do with my children that (neither) them nor I will ever forget," Abbott said. "It's quality time with my kids."

Early in the morning, before the sun was up, the family quietly snuck into a tree stand in Apalachicola National Forest. It took just five minutes for a bear to come their way. After watching it for 15 minutes, Abbott said, they shot the 160-pound female with a 7mm rifle.

"We'll probably mount that one," he said. "And use the meat. It won't be wasted."