Florida just held its first bear hunt in several decades, targeting 300 of the bruins for death. Just three years ago, the black bear was listed as threatened, and the state’s bears had not been hunted since 1994.
The proximate reason for the hunt is that bears, according to representatives of the Florida Wildlife Commission, is that a growing bear population is contributing to greater conflicts between humans and bears. Hunters and the Wildlife Commission like to portray the issue as “problem bears”, but the reality is that there are no problem bears, only problem humans.
Most of these conflicts are due to human negligence. People leaving food attractants like unsecured garbage cans which train bears to forage near humans.
Ironically, indiscriminate hunting is not likely to reduce conflicts. For one thing, most hunters do not hunt immediately next to subdivisions where most conflicts are occurring. Rather they are most likely to the larger parcels of public or private lands. So the animals that hunters are killing, are not likely to be the ones that are wandering the edges of communities.
The second problem with indiscriminate hunting is that it’s difficult for a hunter to determine the sex of a bear. Many females with cubs are killed, leaving the young bears orphaned. Orphaned bears are inexperienced at foraging and desperate to eat, are more likely to be attracted to human foods.
So in effect, hunting only exacerbates the problem that the Florida Wildlife Commission seeks to solve.
The worse part of the hunt is that it ignores the social ecology of predators. Fish and Game agency always talk about maintaining populations. The problem with this kind of management is that it ignores the demographics of wildlife. Hunting tends to skew populations towards younger animals. So even if you maintain the same “population” if the population consists of many young inexperienced animals, you automatically create conflicts. Young animals are less likely to know the location of natural food resources, and are less successful as hunters. As a consequence, they are the very animals most likely to seek out garbage, livestock, and other human food resources.
Whether it is hunting of black bears in Florida, or the recent announcement by Oregon’s Fish and Wildlife to increase cougar hunting, wildlife agencies across the country tend to ignore predator social ecology. In effect, by having indiscriminate hunting and trapping of predators, these state wildlife agencies create a self-reinforcing loop. Predators are killed, resulting in a younger population, which in turn is more likely to create human conflicts, that are then used as an additional justification for more killing.
I see no evidence anywhere that state wildlife agencies are using the latest ecological science in their attitude and management of predators. It suggests that wildlife agencies cannot be trusted to manage predators. Keep in mind, that predators numbers will not grow indefinitely. They are self-managing, primarily by the availability of prey and food, as well as social interaction. Except perhaps for very specific surgical removal of individual animals, there is no good justification for killing predators. Even the argument that “I’m feeding my family” used by some hunters seldom applies to most predators which are not usually consumed.
Predators serve an important ecological function. Bears, for instance, move seeds of some plants around—think of the huckleberry that may be deposited in their droppings. Cougar can thin elk and deer herds to reduce their herbivory on favor plants like aspen and willow. Wolves can remove the injured and sick from a population.
Hunting of predators makes no sense in today’s world.