Florida Bear Hunt: Death Toll Rises to 304

A Florida black bear.
A Florida black bear.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

When Florida's weeklong bear hunt ended at 9 p.m. October 25, officials initially said the number of bears killed was 295. But that figure has ticked up to 304 as additional information trickled in, representatives from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said today in a media call.

Said Dr. Thomas Eason, the agency's bear expert: "We basically had four bears that had been shot during the legal hunt, but it took hunters three or four days to recover the bears." The others were because of "likely illegal activity," he said, and the FWC's law enforcement arm is investigating those incidents. 

Major Craig Duval said the agency had warned or cited two people for taking underweight bears. He also said they had issued one citation for baiting a bear. 

Eason said that "from FWC's perspective, this was a safe, sustainable, and highly successful bear hunt." He noted that the agency has faced allegations that it "decimated the bear populations or that they've been irreparably harmed — none of that is true." 

The agency had last carried out a full-scale bear population estimate in 2002 but is in the middle of a fresh count. 

Eason said that there could be as many as five or six thousand bears in the state and that "at least 3,500, from the population work we've done and are in midst of completing." With mothers giving birth, "there are 1,200 cubs on average out there every year who will be born and turn into yearlings... Those cubs all have to go somewhere." 

A report released shows that 78 percent of kills were made on private land, where hunters were allowed to kill bears that collected around feeding stations where bait is typically left for deer — so long as both hunter and bear were at least 100 feet away from the feeder. 

Twenty-one percent of the bears killed were lactating females. Hunters were not supposed to kill female adults if cubs were present. "We think hunters followed our rules, and our rules did a good job," Eason said.

Though he admitted some cubs were likely orphaned, he said that because cubs are born in the winter, most would be 30 to 80 pounds by now and "have learned everything they need to live on their own." 

He said the agency's policy is to leave cubs in the field if they're at least 6 months old and normal-sized, but they'll bring in ones that are undersized or malnourished, then release them. "That' s ongoing," he said, "and I haven't seen any increase" in troubled cubs since the hunt. 

Diane Eggeman, who is in charge of hunting for the FWC, said that there was no decision yet about a hunt next year. "We are going to take our time to work through that and evaluate results, not rush to a conclusion about where we are going." Still, she said that initially, FWC leaders had expected that "an annual hunt is what's needed to control the annual reproduction of cubs."  

Eason said that this year, the agency had had 348 "trapping events," euthanized 85 bears, and relocated 28 bears. 

He said the hunt would not interfere with its new bear population counts, because they had collected data prior to the hunt. In 2014, over 4.5 million acres, they used hair snares to collect 8,000 samples. In the past year, they collected 7,000 samples.

Initial results show that, compared with the 2002 data, populations have grown by 30 percent near Ocala and more than 100 percent near Pensacola. 

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