Another Florida Bear Hunt This Fall? As FWC Meets to Decide, the NRA and Activists Weigh In

Tomorrow, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will meet in Eastpoint — in the Panhandle — to discuss whether Florida will have another bear hunt this fall. A controversial hunt last year resulted in the deaths of more than 300 bears.  FWC staff and hunters maintained that the hunt was necessary to manage a growing bear population, though environmentalists strongly opposed it and argued that habitat loss and fragmentation is the real problem. 

As explained on the FWC website, the commission has four choices: opt to hold a hunt like last year's, hold a more conservative hunt (recommended by FWC staff), postpone bear hunting, or repeal bear hunting in Florida for now and future years. People can comment online, and watch the meeting on The Florida Channel. 

Debate over the hunt has been contentious, with both animal rights groups and the National Rifle Association weighing in and taking opposite stances. 

This past Saturday, nearly 40 animal rights activists gathered on the streets of South Beach in Miami to protest any hunt.

The leader of the group, Jeff Geragi, the president of the South Florida-based Animal Activists Network, told New Times that the demonstration was meant to pressure the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) ahead of the meeting.

Some of the activists held signs that read “Killing Is Not Conservation”; others handed out leaflets about the controversial hunt to passersby, mentioning that the animals were only recently taken off the state’s threatened species list.

“In 2015, 304 bears were killed in the hunt, 243 bears killed by vehicle strikes, and 129 conflict bears killed by FWC,” said Geragi. “Total bears killed in 2015 is 676, which does not include deaths of cubs orphaned by the hunt or deaths by natural causes.”

Critics of the hunt say they are confused how another bear “massacre” could be approved when the data used to estimate bear populations has been controversial. Prior to last year's hunt, the FWC was using data from 2002. In the meantime, the agency completed new population estimates using bear hair caught in traps. Some bear lovers still were not satisfied. 

“They [FWC] say that there are around 4,300 bears, but these numbers are pre-hunt from last year's slaughter. You can minus at least 304 bears from that number,” said 43-year-old Adam Sugalski, the campaign director for Stop the Florida Bear Hunt. “They need 2016 data. Period.”  Sugalski says that people from 28 other Florida cities, over 800 in all, participated in the statewide protest during the weekend.

“Exploding human populations are driving bears from their ancestral homes, and the U.S. Forest Service's control burns leave these bears with nowhere to go,” he said. “We created this problem and we need to solve it without lethal solutions. Black bears (megafauna) are an umbrella species, and when we save them we are protecting so many other animals as well as large parts of wilderness."

Conservationists with the Sierra Club of Florida have also voiced their concerns.

"The Florida black bear hunt has been one of the most distasteful issues that the Florida Sierra Club and its members have had to deal with,” said Darryl Rutz, a Broward-based member of the Sierra Club of Florida's 2016 Chapter Executive Committee.  “The overall issue to consider is that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is stacked with individuals that have a significant development background," he said. "We feel that unfortunately the Florida black bear is in the way of future development."

The FWC commission includes Brian Yablonski, external affairs director for Gulf Power Co.;  "Alligator" Ron Bergeron, an avid hunter and rodeo pro as well as a builder and road developer; Richard Hanas, a developer; Adrien "Bo" Rivard, an attorney who sits on the Republican Party of Florida Executive Committee; Charles Roberts III, president of a construction company and former director of the Florida Transportation Builders' Association; Aliese Priddy, a major landowner in Collier County; and Key West hotel magnate Robert Spottswood.

Activists say the bears are struggling to forage and survive despite the human-caused challenges imposed on them, such as habitat loss, road collisions, and hunts. Sugalski, who suspects real estate development is indeed a motivating factor behind the bear hunt, said the commissioners live in a "self-serving bubble" and that they will fleece Floridians for short-term gains with no concern for long-term repercussions.

"We need to be stewards of this planet and look at the big picture," he told New Times. "If we don't save bears today, they might not have a tomorrow."

One of the reasons cited to justify the hunt is that bears create a nuisance for local homeowners, as they are known to enter suburban neighborhoods and sift through unsecured trash cans in search of food, creating messes for residents to clean up. Bears have not directly killed any humans in decades, according to FWC officials.

Still, pro-hunting groups seized on fears. “Bears continue to terrorize homeowners and prevent families from allowing children to play outside in some areas,” wrote National Rifle Association lobbyist Marion Hammer in a letter sent to the FWC in late May. “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.”

Earlier this month, the group sent out an email in conjunction with United Sportsmen of Florida, urging hunters to speak out to the FWC. It said:

Bear hunting, and indeed all hunting in Florida, is under attack by anti-hunting groups who are trying to stop one form of hunting so they can move on to the next.

Make no mistake — these groups would shut all hunting down forever if they could.

Right now, these groups are flooding FWC Commissioners with hateful anti-hunting communications. Those of us who support bear hunting and all forms of legal and ethical hunting need to be heard.

For some time, we have raised concerns about the explosion in the bear population and the growing danger to human life as well as pets and property damage.

The growing number of bears intruding into suburban neighborhoods is creating danger for homeowners and has been evident for some time. There is no question that bears are attacking people, killing pets and doing property damage.

According to FWC Staff information, an average of 240 bears a year are being killed by motor vehicles, while only 304 bears were killed during last year's bear season.

It's time to acknowledge the risks to public safety from vehicle crashes involving bears and the economic cost of subsequent injury and damage to passengers and vehicles caused by these crashes. Bear-proof garbage can programs will do nothing to keep bears off the roads and highways. Population reduction is the best and surest method of eliminating that problem.

While the anti-hunting groups decry the fact that 304 bears were killed in only two days, they fail to acknowledge — perhaps on purpose — that those statistics surely point to that fact that the bear population is probably far larger than current statistics indicate. Those numbers suggest a large and growing population of aggressive bears with no fear of humans, posing a present danger to humans and pets. Clearly, the number of hunting days and the number of permits should be increased.

Bears continue to terrorize homeowners and prevent families from allowing children to play outside in some areas. 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.

Continuing a liberal bear hunting season will help bring the bear population under control and help restore safety to families in areas where bears are prolific.

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Jonathan Kendall
Contact: Jonathan Kendall