The most controversial hunt in Florida in a generation ended Sunday, but the disputes over the state’s decision to reopen bear hunting are far from over.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission says it plans to repeat the hunt next year, a plan certain to spark intense debate.
The commission is pursuing criminal cases against several hunters suspected of baiting, which involves setting out food to attract the bears, as well as two cases of bears killed under the 100-pound minimum. Hunters are discussing lawsuits against hunt opponents who threatened and harassed them over the Internet. A planned rescue of orphaned cubs has been called off.
The wildlife commission ended the hunt after only two days, as the tally of dead bears hit 298, near the statewide quota of 320. In the eastern Panhandle, hunters killed 112 bears, nearly triple the quota of 40.
“That is a disaster by anyone’s count,” said Frank Jackalone, senior organizing manager for the Sierra Club of Florida. “We don’t know how many more bears were wounded and are dying in the forest, how many undersized bears were killed and just left there. We don’t know how many bear cubs were made orphans as a result of this hunt. We think that the FWC rolled the dice. The hunters found them and killed them very quickly, and the FWC was caught with their pants down. They were surprised.”
But officials with the wildlife service say the high kill count in the Panhandle and the commission’s swift action to end the hunt showed that the region has a abundant bear population and that the hunt was well controlled.
“That’s one of the large, growing bear populations,” said Thomas Eason, director of the agency’s Habitat and Species Conservation Division at a news conference Monday in Tallahassee. “We had a limited, conservative approach … We definitely were surprised by the amount of harvest on the first day.”
In South Florida, where the hunt took place primarily in Hendry and Collier counties, hunters killed 22 bears, far short of the area’s quota of 80. Eason said this may have been because the amount of public land open to hunting was much smaller in South Florida, where much of the bear population lives on federal land that’s closed to hunting, such as Big Cypress National Preserve and the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge.
Diane Eggeman, director of Hunting and Game Management Division, said the commission expected to authorize another bear hunt.
“It’s our intent to have a hunt annually,” she said. “Everything is on the table at this point. We’re going to assess how the hunt went.”
Her initial assessment: “We got a good start on advancing our objective of stabilizing the large, healthy and growing bear population.”
The bear population has been estimated at more than 3,000 by the wildlife service, although the first population assessment in 13 years has only been partially completed.
She said investigators were pursuing “several” baiting cases, “a couple” of cases involving underweight bears and cases of hunters shooting bears outside the legal dates of the hunt. These violations would be second-degree misdemeanors, carrying up to $500 in fines and up to 60 days in jail.
Newton Cook, executive director of the duck hunting group United Waterfowlers of Florida, hunted bears without luck in the Ocala National Forest. But he called the hunt statewide a success, a well-run enterprise that helped control the bear population.
“As far as the hunters were concerned, it was a tremendous success and they were glad for the opportunity,” he said. “This has proven there are plenty of bears and the FWC has the resources to control the hunt. The FWC had a plan and a program that worked, and when the number they set as a target was about to be reached, they shut it down.”
For hunters, the worst thing wasn’t a failure to find a bear, it was the harassment from opponents. Under Florida’s open record law, the wildlife commission released the names and email addresses of the more than 3,000 bear permit holders (with some names withheld under exceptions to the law).
“I got emails saying ‘You killer,’ and ‘I hope you die’ and ‘murderer,'” Cook said.
One list of permit holders posted on the web called the hunters “3,000 serial killers.”
On Facebook, hunters have been collecting the worst comments and most serious threats. They are discussing whether to file suit against the people sending them out or organizing the email campaign.
Some hunt opponents had planned to head into the woods to rescue cubs orphaned by the hunt. But late Monday afternoon, they called it off.
“It is with a heavy heart that we write these next few words,” wrote Chuck O’Neal, a Seminole County environmentalist who was one of the organizers of the campaign against the hunt, in a message to other activists. “After consultation with the only private black bear cub rehabilitation facility in Florida, and weighing all the possible outcomes, we are calling off our search for orphan cubs.”
He said they called it off because the cubs were likely old enough to survive on their own, because they didn’t want the cubs to lose their fear of people and to avoid putting any would-be rescuers in danger.
He said they were better off putting their energy into pressing communities to require bear-proof garbage cans and fighting a return of the hunt next year.
“We can learn to co-exist with the bears,” he wrote. “We can end this cruel and unscientific hunt if we have leaders in place that make decisions based on science and not political expediency.”