UPDATE: The FWC has approved the hunt of 320 black bears, or about 10 percent of the estimated population.
In June, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), approved a hunting season on Florida's black bears from October 24 to 30. Today at the Hilton Fort Lauderdale Marina, the commission was meeting and was expected to set "harvest objectives" — i.e., to put an exact figure on how many black bears may be killed. Activists with the Sierra Club, a conservation group, gathered to speak out against the hunt, bringing with them a five-foot teddy bear and saying that setting harvest objectives is absurd because the FWC is largely basing its number on outdated data from 2002.
The conservationists believe the hunt, which is planned for next month, is ridiculous. The FWC for decades designed plans to conserve the black bear population, which was listed as threatened from 1974 to 2012. Though the bears' status changed, habitat loss and development have been a continued threat for them. In just the past few years, though, bears have wandered into residential neighborhoods, prompting fear and paving the way for the hunt.
But the frustrated activists point out that though the bears were delisted as a protected species, the FWC has admitted it doesn't have a solid count of how many black bears there are living in the wild.
The FWC arrived at their current estimate of 3,150 bears living in Florida by combining a 2014 count of black bears living in northeast Florida and east-central Florida with a 2002 count that suggested there were 2,941 bears in South Florida and the eastern Panhandle at that time.
Officials at the FWC told New Times this summer that a new official report on the number of black bears in the state will not be ready until the summer of 2016 — one year from now.
"We ask that the FWC at least delay the decision on opening bear hunting until all options are scientifically vetted and presented to the public. Each option in bear management should delve into the positive and negative environmental impacts of the proposed actions and provide a list of alternatives that may be chosen instead of hunting," Alexis Horn, the Sierra Club's panther habitat campaign coordinator, said today. "Even though it is indisputable that bear populations have grown — the whole point of protecting them — the 13-year-old population data does not give the full account on where bears currently stand. Opening a hunt is premature at this time. We are concerned that not all the appropriate tools are being deployed to manage the population. Hunting is an extreme response to an increasing population that was so recently under protective status. Without the science of a full, completed population study, a hunt is unjustifiable."
An FWC spokesperson told New Times this summer that as many as 20 percent of Florida's black bears may be hunted and killed, AKA "harvested."
Sierra Club members are also shocked that while invasive species continue to swallow up the Sunshine State, the FWC has ordered the harvest of Florida's native black bears.
"Sierra Club is not opposed to all hunting. For example, exotic invasive wildlife like wild hogs and Burmese pythons that destroy our native ecosystems need to be trapped and hunted. But Florida black bears are not exotic animals," said Frank Jackalone, staff director for Sierra Club Florida. "They are natural inhabitants of Florida, and they are bright, intelligent mammals that occupied this land before people did. It is immoral to talk about 'harvesting’ black bears. Shame on the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission for suggesting that Florida black bears should be harvested!"
Jackalone says the "vile proposal" to hunt hundreds of Florida's black bears is tragic because it is part of a larger assault on the state's wildlife and habitat, namely that
"This is a tragic day for Florida’s wildlife and for millions of Floridians who love nature and want to protect our state’s wildlife," he said. "Sierra Club will use every legal and political
The FWC concedes that hunting black bears will not stop human and bear conflicts, stating that even in states known to allow seasonal hunts, human-bear conflicts persist, as bears search out food sources like garbage and pet food. "The most successful way to reduce human-bear conflicts," states FWC's website, "... is to secure items that attract bears into neighbor[hoods]."
The Sierra Club believes the FWC should focus on further educating the public how to better take care of their trash as a means to limit human and bear interactions. According to the FWC, up to 95 percent of bear and human encounters were reduced when bear-proof trashcans were adopted by residents living in urban sprawl, areas of life that encroach in the bears natural habitat.
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"We support educating Floridians to have a better understanding of bears and bear conservation measures," Jon Ullman, Sierra Club South Florida organizer, told New Times. "We support measures to educate Floridians about not leaving people or pet food outdoors that can attract bears. ... Only through education, fines for those who feed bears, and protecting environmentally sensitive lands will bears be managed effectively. Without habitat protection and acquisition, bears will suffer, and human-bear conflicts will increase."
Already there are nearly 2,000 applications for bear hunting permits, and that number is "growing quickly" according to Ullman.
The bear hunt rules permit hunting in four of the state's seven "Bear management Units." In South Florida, that includes Okaloacoochee Slough Wildlife Mangement Area, Picayune Strand WMA, Spirit of the Wild WMA, and private lands in Broward, Palm
Only one percent of bear-related calls to the FWC concerned a threat to human safety, and even then attacks are rare. According to the FWC, black bears have not directly killed a human in decades.