A little less than three years ago, Florida’s native black bears were listed as an “imperiled species”, as their numbers in the wild recovered slowly from a low of only several hundred towards the end of the 20th century.
Now, in a move environmental groups have branded a “painful new development”, the state’s wildlife leaders have placed the animals back in the sights of hunters after a 20-year absence.
In an action opposed by 61% of Florida’s human population, according to a recent survey, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) has ordered staff to draw up plans to revive an annual bear hunt.
The proposed “harvest” is one of a number of aggressive new measures needed, the commission argues, because of the increasing encroachment of “nuisance bears” in residential areas and four serious attacks by bears on humans since December 2013, including the mauling of a 15-year-old girl.
“Our responsibility is to protect the citizens of this state,” said commission chairman Dick Corbett. “We have to take a more aggressive approach to conflict wildlife.”
Among the other measures approved at a two-day commission meeting in Jacksonville, which ends Thursday, were harsher penalties for residents who leave out food that attracts bears, more animal-proof trash cans for neighbourhoods close to bear populations, an improved education programme to reduce human-bear encounters, euthanasia of nuisance bears, and more “hazing” of the animals – such as scaring them away with pellets and paintballs.
But it was the discussion over the possible restoration of bear hunting for the first time since it was outlawed in 1994 that drew swift and harsh criticism from wildlife advocates.
“The idea of bears being killed appalls me,” said Matthew Schwartz, executive director of the South Florida Wildlands Association who led a vocal but ultimately unsuccessful effort to persuade the FWC not to remove Florida black bears from its imperiled species list in 2012.
“I fear mother bears will be killed and cubs will be orphaned. The idea that it’s coming to this is tragic.”
Beyond the emotion of the issue, Schwartz insists, the FWC’s own studies show that predicted future development in Florida, and an estimated near-doubling of the current population to 36 million by 2060, will continue to reduce the bears’ habitat and lead to the deaths of more animals on the roads as more highways are built.
“You already have hundreds of bears killed by vehicles each year,” Schwartz said. “There is no reason to expect Florida’s bear population, or any other wildlife population, is going to increase in the coming decades. Just the opposite is likely. It’s only a matter of time before the Florida black bear is placed back on the imperiled species programme, and possibly on the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s threatened species list.” Advertisement
State wildlife officials say they do not know exactly how many black bears live in the wild in Florida, and the results of a study currently under way will not be available until later this year or possibly next.
But they claim that the rebound in numbers to an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 bears, based on figures from the most recent survey in 2002, is strong enough to sustain a “conservative harvest” during a week-long bear hunt in the autumn.
Permits would cost $100 for Florida residents and $300 for out-of-state hunters, and commission staff propose a limit of 20% of the current bear population less road-killed and euthanised animals, amounting to 275 bears per year. That figure, the FWC concedes, will likely increase when new population estimates are ready.
“We are not proposing that hunting is going to directly resolve most of these human-bear conflicts in suburban areas,” said Dr Thomas Eason, director of the FWC’s division of habitat and species conservation, who pointed out that 32 of the 41 states with black bears already use hunting as a population management tool.
“Where hunting can augment [other] efforts is where we have our core population; hunting can help manage those bear numbers to where there are fewer young animals dispersing out of their areas and less bears in those peripheral areas being pulled in, lured in, by garbage.”
Several supporters of harvesting addressed the commission, including Chuck Echenique of Tampa, who said that years of no hunting had produced generations of bears with no fear of humans. “Once a bear gets a taste of trash, it’s like crack. No way that bear is going back to foraging in the woods,” he said.
Before the meeting, a survey of Florida residents conducted for the Humane Society of the United States showed 61% against the re-introduction of a bear hunting season and only 25% in favour.
According to Schwartz, meanwhile, the decision by the seven-member commission to press ahead with plans for a bear hunt, which they could approve as early as their next meeting in April, comes down to politics.
“Almost all of the commissioners like to hunt and fish and make no bones about their advocacy for hunting,” he said. “They cater to the hunter.”
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This article was first published by The Guardian on 06 Feb 2015.