The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission last week gave the preliminary approval to new rules for conducting a black bear hunt in four areas of the state this fall following a 20-year closure.
At their Tallahassee meeting, commissioners also moved forward with additional bear-management measures that would penalize residents of bear country who feed the animals intentionally, allow homeowners to take out problem bears after all other countermeasures have failed and allow public safety personnel to haze problem bears — using nonlethal harassment tactics — without a permit.
All the bear rules will be up for final adoption at the commission’s next meeting in June.
Chairman Richard Corbett called the decision to go forward with public hunting “a courageous and monumental step forward based on conscientious analysis and terrific field work.”
Added commissioner Bo Rivard: “This is a very conservative approach. I am comfortable our decision is not a knee-jerk reaction to unfortunate events but a well-thought-out and rational plan.”
Commissioners voted in February to resume bear hunting for the first time since 1994 following four serious attacks on people in Central Florida and the Eastern Panhandle within the past year. Wildlife biologists say Florida’s bear population has grown to more than 3,000 today compared with only a few hundred in the 1970s, resulting in bears being removed from the state’s threatened-species list and leading to an upsurge in bear-human encounters.
The hunting measures given tentative approval include:
▪ issuing permits on demand to hunters on public and private lands in four areas of the state with healthy bear populations where deer hunting is currently allowed, including Southwest Florida. Those permits would cost $100 for state residents; $300 for nonresidents;
▪ establishing a one-week season, Oct. 24-30 this year, with daylight hunting only;
▪ imposing a one-bear-per-person-per-season bag limit;
▪ restricting harvest to male and female bears with a minimum weight of 100 pounds;
▪ prohibiting harvest of a female accompanied by cubs;
▪ prohibiting hunting with dogs, except to track a bear that has been shot;
▪ prohibiting baiting;
▪ requiring all hunters to present a harvested bear at an established check station within 12 hours.
Diane Eggeman, the agency’s director of hunting and game management, said the aim is to reduce the bear population by 20 percent. For the South Florida counties of Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Monroe, Hendry, Lee and Collier, the harvest objective is 80 bears. Once that target is met, the hunting season would end.
The only public hunting grounds open in South Florida would be Picayune Strand near Naples; OK Slough straddling Collier and Hendry counties; and Spirit of the Wild about 40 miles northeast of Fort Myers. Eggeman said bear hunting likely would not be conducted in the Big Cypress National Preserve this year because that would require a federal environmental review which could not be completed in time for hunting season.
The vote to approve the new hunting rules came after several hours of public testimony both for and against bear hunting in Florida. Opponents said there is no proof hunting bears in the wild would solve problems with nuisance bears in residential neighborhoods.
Sandy Tetter, who lives near the Apalachicola National Forest in North Florida, said people should just learn to live with bears.
“Every bear we’ve come face-to-face with has always wanted to go the other way as fast as it can,” she told commissioners. “If you educate people how to maintain their trash and use bear-proof containers, I think you’ll cut down on these conflicts that are going on.”
In contrast, no one at the meeting objected to the slate of proposed bear-management rules.
Thomas Eason, the agency’s division director of habitat and species conservation, said he would present a comprehensive proposal on waste management — including working with local governments on bear-proof trash disposal ordinances — at the commission’s June meeting.