Fred Grimm

NRA urges Florida to declare another war on scary black bears

Last fall’s bear hunt drew protests. Now the National Rifle Association is proposing that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission approve a new and larger bear hunt.
Last fall’s bear hunt drew protests. Now the National Rifle Association is proposing that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission approve a new and larger bear hunt. AP file 2015

It’s a wonder, really, that any of us Floridians dare venture outdoors, where certain danger lurks in furry black attire.

“Bears continue to terrorize homeowners and prevent families from allowing children to play outside in some areas,” warned the most powerful voice in Tallahassee, the fearsome Marion Hammer.

Hammer, the well-armed lobbyist for the National Rifle Association and Unified Sportsmen of Florida, fired off a letter to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Tuesday urging the agency “to continue and to expand bear hunting season in Florida.” (“Urge,” coming from Hammer, actually means “demand.”)

No worries Marion. When the commission meets June 22, the commissioners will undoubtedly add another bear hunt to the Scott administration’s ongoing campaign against Florida’s fauna and flora.

Last fall, despite overwhelming public opposition, the commission staged what was supposed to be a weeklong black bear hunt. The state had sold 3,778 bear hunting permits (at $100 each for Floridians, $300 for out-of-staters), which seemed like overkill for a puny population the state estimates (overestimates according to a number of environmental groups) at just 4,350 adult bears.

The hunt, however, was abruptly stopped when after just two days, the hunters had already killed 304 bears, including 36 lactating mother bears. The NRA and the Unified Sportsmen of Florida maintain that was hardly enough to stanch the “explosion in the bear population and the growing danger to human life as well as pets and property damage.”

Environmentalists seethe over the notion that 4,350 bears, statewide, could be characterized as a population explosion. This was an animal that was listed as a threatened species just three years ago.

There’s also something bizarre about the NRA — the state’s most powerful gun advocate — railing about the danger to human life posed by black bears. A study published in the Journal of Wildlife Management in 2010 found just 14 deaths attributed to wild black bears in the lower 48 states since 1900. Since the study was published, a 22-year-old hiker in New Jersey suffered a fatal encounter with a black bear, so make that 15 deaths in the last 116 years. (That New Jersey attack, by the way, was the first fatal bear attack in that state since 1852.)

Gun deaths, meanwhile, are another story. In 2014 alone, firearms killed 2,410 people in Florida — almost seven deaths a day. (Nationwide, there were 33,599 gun fatalities that year.) When it comes to terrorizing Floridians, the bears hardly measure up to the gun access championed by the NRA. There are neighborhoods in Miami-Dade, indeed, where parents are afraid to allow their children to play outside. However, bullets are the source of their terror. Not the dwindling sub-species known as Ursus americanus floridanus.

Still, the gunslingers on the wildlife commission are likely to side with the NRA and declare another war on the bears this fall. Last year, as the commission was considering whether to hold the state’s first bear hunt in 21 years, more than 40,000 people responded to a call for public comment. The Tampa Bay Times reported that 75 percent of the comments opposed the hunt.

But public sentiment doesn’t much matter to the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

On Thursday, the Hillsborough County Commission unanimously approved a resolution opposing another black bear hunt in Florida. County commissions in Miami-Dade, Pinellas, Seminole and Volusia counties have passed similar resolutions. So have city commissions in Davie, St. Petersburg, Fort Myers, Cape Coral, Pinecrest, Cutler Bay, Davie, Deltona, Clermont, South Miami, Biscayne Park, Eustis, Safety Harbor and Palmetto Bay.

Those city and county commissions represent a sizable chunk of the state’s population, but they won’t matter either. Nor will objections from outfits like the Sierra Club, the Humane Society of the United States, the League of Women Voters and The Center for Biological Diversity. Not against the likes of Marion Hammer and the state’s ever-declining but disproportionately powerful hunting community. Though, as Hillsborough Commissioner Stacy White noted in an op-ed in the Tampa Bay Times just ahead of Thursday’s resolution vote, Florida hunters have some 700,000 white-tailed deer, 200,000 wild turkey and countless numbers of feral pigs that they can blast into oblivion. Going after a fragile population that an optimistic count puts at 4,350 seems mad. Besides, motorists, who kill 240 bears a year on Florida highways, seem to be doing a bang-up job of culling the herd.

Too bad Floridians won’t be allowed to vote on the issue in this fall’s general election. I’d bet that those scary black bears — the creatures that have so terrorized the NRA — would out-poll every politician on the ballot.