Early next month, members of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FFWCC), a seven-member panel appointed by the governor, will consider whether reinstating a bear-hunting season after a 20-year absence can help address the growing number of bear-human conflicts throughout the state. A story from the Sun Sentinel says the FFWCC expects the notion to be controversial, especially because the move for public safety and wildlife management involves an animal that stirs sentiment from both hunters and non-hunters. If the hunt gets a thumbs up, discussion of how many permits to issue and location of hunting boundaries will take place in April.
Florida banned bear hunting in most areas in the late 1970s, but extended the ban to the entire state in 1994. Since that time, the bear population has reportedly gone from a few hundred animals to about 3,000—though that approximation is based on 12-year-old data. The state is working on an updated estimate. The wildlife commission’s current bear plan calls for the consideration of some hunting as a management tool in the future, but David Telesco, bear management coordinator for the wildlife commission, said that the agency accelerated their discussion of hunting in light of the spike in recent bear attacks. “It’s not going to solve bear-human conflicts, but it is going to be a pressure release on the population,” he said. “Bears are a renewable resource. We’re kind of oddball in not hunting.”
Only sixteen people have reportedly been injured by black bears in Florida since records have been kept, but there has been a notable spike in bear-related incidents in the last year, especially near the Ocala National Forest, home to the state’s largest bear population. In December 2014, an SUV hit a bear near the Everglades, starting a chain-reaction crash that left three people dead. In Franklin County later that month, a bear mauled and dragged a 15-year-old girl off a road. The girl’s dog eventually scared it off. Six bears have been trapped in the vicinity since then, including one positively identified as the attacker. More than 30 law enforcement officers in Franklin County, have since been trained to use non-lethal methods of defense against nuisance bears, like bear spray, paintballs, and rubber buckshot, according to the Apalachicola Times.
Although 32 of the 41 states with bears currently allow hunting, Florida’s proposal is already seeing pushback from animal rights groups. Kate MacFall, the Florida director of the Humane Society, says hunting won’t solve the problem, but educating people on how to take out the trash will. “Trophy hunting doesn’t really address the problem bear,” she said. “If you go into the woods and kill bears minding their own business, that doesn’t address the problem bears. The real issue is large-scale trash management in bear country. The problem bears are being drawn by all that food, by the trash.”
Pinki Jackel, a Franklin County commissioner, says that the state needs to find a better balance, even if it includes hunting. “The current system of tagging bears and relocating bears is no longer effective, the population of bears has outgrown the system,” she said. “The balance between man and nature is a difficult one to achieve, and I support measures that strike that balance. I can support a system of controlled hunting, based upon good population facts, because clearly, other remedies have been exhausted without success.”