Florida’s Bears Are No Longer Endangered, and Now 320 of Them Could Be Killed in a Week
For the first time in more than 20 years, Florida is allowing its once-endangered black bears to be hunted for one week starting Oct. 24.
As many as 320 bears could be killed over the course of the hunt, a number conservation groups such as Speak Up Wekiva call arbitrary because the state does not have current population estimates for the bears. All those bears could die thanks to a loophole in the guidelines that doesn’t limit how many animals can be killed during the first two days of the hunt.
A Tallahassee judge allowed the hunt in an Oct. 8 ruling that denied Speak Up Wekiva’s request to postpone it on the grounds that state wildlife officials won’t be able to stop hunters from continuing to kill bears even after the quota is met.
The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has sold more than 2,000 bear-hunting permits since they went on sale in August.
“They have said they have personnel that can go out in the field and contact hunters if we have what we call a premature closure,” biologist Stephen Stringham told Bay News 9. “Since they have not presented any information on how they’re going to do that, I have to say they haven’t proven it.”
Florida black bears are considered a subspecies of the American black bear. Historically, they roamed across most of Florida and into the southern reaches of Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi. But by the 1970s, only a few hundred bears were left in the wild, and hunting was banned statewide by the mid 1990s. Since then, the population has rebounded to around 3,000. The subspecies was removed from the state’s list of threatened animals and is now considered one of the state’s biggest conservation success stories.
So why the push to kill?
Four bear attacks on humans in 2013 and 2014 appear to have galvanized the public and the state’s wildlife commission to take action against the animals.
But wildlife commission executive director Nick Wiley told the Tampa Bay Times that the attacks didn’t prompt the bear hunts, and such events in general aren’t a proven tool in reducing attacks.
“We have never proposed bear hunting as a solution to conflicts” with humans, Wiley said. “It’s [bear hunting] to control the bear population. We don’t know for sure it will lessen the conflicts. We don’t have the science to prove it.”
With the hunt scheduled, Speak Up Wekiva is seeking volunteers to act as “bear hunt monitors” to keep track of hunters and make sure kills are being reported.
Conservationists argue that residents and wildlife officials should be focusing on keeping bears away from human garbage by installing wildlife-proof trash cans at homes and businesses. If hunting is conducted, it should target nuisance bears, not the general population.
Ron Bergeron, a wildlife commissioner who voted against the hunt, told The New York Times that the special trash cans put in one Florida county reduced bear encounters 95 percent.
“You are not going to stop bears coming into neighborhoods from just having a hunt,” he said. “Hunting is a management tool for when the population is greater than the environment. Then it’s appropriate. First of all, you have to have all your science and assessments in place.”