Public Domain Neal Herbert
In 2015, Florida held its first bear hunt in over 20 years. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) considered the hunt to be a necessary tool for curbing Florida’s growing black bear population, but the hunt did not go exactly as planned. FWC sold 3,776 hunting permits, and its 2015 Summary Report shows that 304 bears were killed in just two days. Although hunters did not exceed the overall statewide harvest objective of 320 bears, bears were over-hunted in two of the four designated hunting regions, referred to as Bear Management Units. In the East Panhandle, 114 bears were killed despite a harvest objective of only 40 bears, and in Central Florida, 143 bears were killed instead of the expected harvest of 100 bears.
Furthermore, despite regulations that bears with cubs could not be targeted, FWC allowed both male and female bears to be hunted. Controversy arose when the commission discovered that a majority of the bears killed were females and that of those females, 21% were lactating. FWC justified these statistics, stating that most bear cubs would be at least 8 months old at the time of the hunt and that orphaned cubs are generally able to survive on their own at that age.
After a controversial hunt last year, the commission has spent the past several weeks debating whether or not to hold another hunt in 2016. Many animal-rights activists and conservationists oppose bear hunting, arguing that it puts black bear populations in danger. The Florida black bear was considered an endangered species until 2012, and opponents of the hunt worry that progress might be reversed if hunting is promoted.
Those in favor of the hunt argue that bear populations need to be controlled as there are 4,350 black bears in Florida today, compared to several hundred in the 1970s when the species was first declared endangered. With this rise in population also comes a rise in bear-human conflict. According to The Palm Beach Post, the number of bears killed by vehicles has increased sevenfold from 1990 to 2015. In addition, only 99 phone calls concerning bears were made to FWC in 2000 as compared to a staggering 6,094 phone calls in 2015.
On Wednesday, FWC heard addresses from over 80 people concerning the hunt. After several hours of deliberation, the commission voted to postpone black bear hunting for the rest of the year by a slim margin of 4-3. In a news release on the agency’s website, Nick Wiley, the executive director of FWC, explained the decision.
Although hunting has been demonstrated to be a valuable tool to control bear populations across the country, it is just one part of FWC’s comprehensive bear management program. I am proud of our staff who used the latest, cutting-edge, peer-reviewed science to develop a recommendation for our Commissioners to consider. Our agency will continue to work with Floridians, the scientific community and local governments as our focus remains balancing the needs of Florida’s growing bear population with what’s best for families in our state.
With the anti-hunt vote now finalized, FWC has promised to employ purely nonlethal methods of reducing bear-human conflict this year. Using its budget of $825,000, the commission hopes to promote bear safety programs in communities statewide, including the addition of bear-proof trashcans in areas that are particularly affected by the animal. The agency recently hired additional staff members who focus on bear management and has also funded scientific studies on Floridian bear populations. The commission will hold another vote in 2017 to determine if bear hunting should be reintroduced next year.