As a renewed debate builds about the issue, the National Rifle Association and the Unified Sportsmen of Florida are urging the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to hold a bear hunt later this year.
The gun-rights organizations’ influential Tallahassee lobbyist, Marion Hammer, sent a letter Tuesday to the commission that also called for steps such as increasing the number of days to hunt.
“Bears continue to terrorize homeowners and prevent families from allowing children to play outside in some areas,” Hammer, a past president of the NRA and the executive director of the Unified Sportsmen of Florida, wrote. “And while FWC is working to educate people about securing trash and is trying to move dangerous bears out of residential areas, those programs are helpful but cannot succeed without hunts to reduce the population.”
Commissioners, who approved a controversial bear hunt last year but have not made a decision about another hunt, are expected to receive a staff recommendation prior to a meeting June 22 in the Franklin County community of Eastpoint.
The October 2015 hunt — the first in the state in more than two decades — was scheduled for seven days, but ended after two days as hunters killed 304 bears. The state agency had put a 320-bear quota on the hunt and later acknowledged it “underestimated the hunter success for the first day.”
The state didn’t put a cap on the number of permits that could be issued in the 2015 hunt, charging state residents $100 to participate. Hunters from out of state had to pay $300.
Money raised from the permits helps pay for community efforts to manage the bear population through programs such as bear-proof trash containers.
Kate MacFall, Florida state director for The Humane Society, said while hunt opponents push for non-lethal means to reduce human-bear conflicts and see opposition growing against another hunt, they believe commissioners have already decided.
“It’s trophy hunting, which we certainly don’t support,” MacFall said. “Floridians love bears. Their (the bears) subpopulations are already fragmented. They’re already having a tough time with habitat destruction, huge developments, so many people moving to Florida … there are so many challenges that these bears already face.”
Commission staff members have been holding a series of webinars that recap the 2015 hunt, offer the latest estimates on the numbers of bears in Florida, summarize efforts to reduce incidents involving humans and bears and take public input. The final webinar is planned for Thursday night.
Harry Dutton, leader of the commission’s hunting and game management division, said last week that “for a possible future hunt” officials are looking at the length and time of year for the hunt and limiting the number of permits. Also, they are looking at how check stations are monitored, rules for hunting on wildlife management areas, the prohibition on baiting bears, the use of dogs to track bears and the minimum size of bears that could be killed.
In last year’s hunt, there was a 100-pound minimum as bears under that weight are considered cubs.
The agency estimates, based on recent surveys, 4,220 bears are in the state, up from 2,640 in 2002. The population growth has been called robust as the estimated bear count was as low as 300 to 500 in the 1970s, when bears were put on the state’s list of threatened species. Bears were removed from the list in 2012.
Local government officials from Seminole, Miami-Dade and Volusia counties have voiced opposition to a repeat of the 2015 hunt. Officials in Flagler County have been silent.
During a three-hour webinar Thursday, commission staff members were adamant that a hunt is among the various ways to manage the state’s growing bear population and to reduce human-bear interactions. Another webinar was scheduled for today.
“When we look at what FWC and partner agencies and others are doing, we’re throwing everything and the kitchen sink at bears right now,” Dave Telesco, commission bear-management program coordinator, said during the webinar. “We’re doing education. We’re trying for ordinances. We’re trying to get voluntary compliance in securing trash. We’re hunting and we’re moving bears. And so we’re basically trying to do everything that we can to reduce those conflicts and to reduce the risks to public safety.”
Thomas Eason, director of the commission’s habitat and species conservation division, said the agency can’t just focus on educating people to secure trash and food when left outside and expect bears and humans not to cross paths.
“We’re looking at over 200 bears that are being hit by vehicles, that means people are in those vehicles,” Eason said during the webinar. “Part of the rationale behind the hunt is to help shift mortality away from things where it’s impacting people negatively.”
Harry Dutton, leader of the hunting and game management division, said “for a possible future hunt” officials are looking at the length and time of year for the hunt and limiting the number of permits. Also, they are looking at how check stations are monitored, rules for hunting on wildlife management areas, the prohibition on baiting bears, the use of dogs to track bears and the minimum size of bears that could be killed.
About 600 questions were submitted during last week’s live-chat session, most from a handful of bear-hunt critics, and many were redundant as some participants came in and out during the 150-minute question and answer portion.
The webinar opened with a brief outline on the growth of the bear population in the state, a recap of the 2015 bear hunt, the latest estimates on the numbers of bears in Florida and efforts to reduce incidents involving humans and bears.
The state agency currently estimates, based upon recent surveys, 4,220 bears are in the state, up from 2,640 in 2002. The population growth has been called robust as the estimated bear count was as low as 300 to 500 in the 1970s, when bears were put on the state’s list of threatened species. Bears were removed from the list in 2012.
Critics of bear hunting rattled off questions about issues such as why the state agency doesn’t provide free bear-proof trash cans in areas where nuisance calls are made. Also, they raised questions about whether nuisance bears should be relocated deeper into the wilderness and into less populated areas and if the state agency is “embarrassed about the worldwide media coverage they received last year opposing the hunt?”
“FWC claims that the science is there for a hunt, but that doesn’t mean that a bear hunt should or must take place,” wrote Laura Bevan, a webinar participant and the regional director of the Humane Society of the United States, which opposed last year’s hunt.
A few of the critics added that if another hunt is held, the state should limit bear-hunt permits to Florida residents or simply use professional hunters to manage the population and avoid a “free for all.”
“Why does FWC pander to the small few ‘problem people’ who hate or are intolerant to bears? Why does FWC push so hard for a trophy hunt?” asked webinar participant Lee Day.
Those posing questions that favored hunting bear pushed to allow baiting and to expand the role of dogs in the hunts on certain lands larger than 50,000 acres. Also, they raised ideas about holding the hunt in the spring, excluding from the state’s Sunshine Law the names of permit holders and having the hunt last longer.
This year, Florida lawmakers included $500,000 in the new state budget to reduce human-bear conflicts. A large part of the money is revenue from permits sold for the 2015 hunt. The money doesn’t become available until after the July 1 start of the new fiscal year.
–Jim Turner, News Service of Florida