As Florida's Bear Hunt Opens, Critics Complain Wildlife Agency Is Beholden to Hunters

At 7:30 in the evening, Terri Frana noticed two black bears gallop through the backyard of her 10-year-old, $725,000 house in Lake Mary, just north of Orlando. Frana, a 44-year-old banker with brown bangs and a kind face, was used to seeing the beasts around her woodsy neighborhood, but she figured she should check on her 10-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son, who were playing out front. She stepped out the screen door and padded around to her driveway. Two bears were rooting around in the garbage cans.

Frana swiveled her head toward the garage and spotted three more: "All I saw were three large butts between our two vehicles." As the thought burst into her head — Get the children and get inside! — a four-foot-tall, 200-pound bear was already on its back paws and charging.

Frana hit the ground and played dead, covering her face with an arm. The bear jawed at her leg and waist. It opened wide and clamped down on Frana's head.

"I could just hear her teeth," Frana sobbed the next day. "I'll never forget the sound of teeth going into my skull." The bear dragged her toward the woods.

She prayed — God, please, this can't be the end — "And I literally heard Jesus say to me, 'It's OK. You'll be at peace with us.' "

But my kids need me, she pleaded. It's not my time. Please.

The bear released her.

She got to her feet — "It must have been the Holy Spirit just picked me up" — and bolted through her front door. She collapsed on the foyer floor.

Her 15-year-old son, Drew, called 911. After running toward the sound of her screams, Frana's two younger children dodged two bears in the driveway and burst inside through separate doors. Only then did Frana think, I can breathe.

That was April 12, 2014. Frana received 30 staples on her scalp and ten stitches on her forehead. She suffered a cut on her lip and claw marks down the length of her back. As wildlife officers combed the woods near her gated community, Frana told TV interviewers that she hated the thought of a bear being euthanized but acknowledged that her city — like all of Central Florida — was fast-developing, and the bears were running out of places to live. There had been 115 reports of bear sightings in Lake Mary in 2013, and five new developments were under construction within a five-mile radius.

"At some point," she reflected, "lawmakers and city officials are going to have to look at this and think, 'OK, enough is enough.' "

A year later, though, it's the bears, not the people, who have to go. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (commonly shortened to FWC), a body of seven commissioners appointed by the governor, has decided to reopen hunting of the state's estimated 3,000 Florida black bears for the week of October 24 to 30 — the first wide-scale hunting of bears in the state since 1974.

Officials have given conflicting reasons for allowing hunting of a species that just three years ago was listed as threatened. Initially, one commissioner, Richard Corbett, a Tampa-based real estate investor and shopping-mall developer, said it was a response to the bear attacks, but since then, the agency's official position has been that the hunt is for management purposes. It concedes that hunting will do little to stop bears in residential neighborhoods like Frana's.

The decision — a relatively sudden reversal from a 2012 policy that called for sustaining bear populations through at least 2022 — has riled the public. The state is basing its bear counts on questionable data and has sold almost as many hunting licenses as there are bears in the state, critics say.

The controversy has brought attention to the seven members of the FWC, a Breakfast Club of power players: a builder, a road builder, a rancher, a hotel magnate, a power company executive, a Republican bigwig, and a developer. The rancher — Aliese Priddy, vice chair of the commission and the only woman on it — has been assailed for conflicts of interest in prioritizing landowners' interests over Florida's critters.

Should these individuals be making decisions about Florida's wildlife? By applying to serve, all seven contended that yes — as people who own, control, and use large swaths of land — they should.

Chuck O'Neal, a sandy-haired activist from Longwood, near Orlando, disagrees. He is suing the commission, alleging that the bear hunt violates the FWC's constitutional mandate to protect wildlife. "What we're dealing with," he says, "is a runaway agency."

Aliese "Liesa" Priddy shakes a bag of feed onto the sandy soil behind a stable on her J.B. Ranch in Immokalee — 9,300 acres of wild grasses, saw palmetto, cypress swamp, and sabal palms that span both sides of Highway 29. But on this 91-degree day in late September, 18 heifers are too lazy or too pregnant to care much. The Brangus cattle — a cross between Brahman, a breed that tolerates high heat, and Angus, which produces high-grade beef — are all due to give birth in three weeks. They flick their tails and lazily pick at the ground.

Priddy, age 57, rattles off facts and figures in a businesswoman's parlance. "Each heifer has to have five calves for a rancher to break even," she explains. "If it hasn't had a calf yet, it's called a heifer. If it has, it's a cow." Her work wear consists of Wellington boots, jeans, hoop earrings, and a bright swipe of pink lipstick.

"I knew people hunted and ate what they killed. We were people who never wasted. If we killed something, we ate it."

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Born an only child in 1957, she grew up on this property, where her grandfather had taken over a cattle operation in the 1940s and also established orange groves. "I was on a horse from when I could sit upright," she remembers. As a child, she loved riding alone for hours.

Hunting was part of her culture too. She's hunted for so long that she can't pinpoint her first time — probably with family friends when she was 9 or 10, taking down squirrels on the property with a .22-caliber rifle.

Though she kept pets from rabbits to fish, she never cried over dead animals. "That was not a thought that really crossed my mind," she remembers. "I knew people hunted and ate what they killed. We were people who never wasted. If we killed something, we ate it. Also, I had been around cows, so I was exposed to a lot of blood." (She never ate squirrel, though — "I like white meat, and that's a dark meat.")

Her experiences would eventually propel her toward a seat on the FWC.

At Georgia Southern University, she picked up a degree in business and a husband, Russell Priddy, who had grown up in rural South Carolina and was studying finance. Liesa embarked on a career in banking, but in 1993, when her two children were small, she returned to the ranch, which Russell and her father worked while she took a day job as a law firm administrator in Naples.

Collier County had changed. The Florida panther was declared endangered in 1967. Alligator Alley, a two-lane highway that passed just south of the Priddys' ranch, had been built in 1968 and widened to become I-75 22 years later. In 1989, 26,400 acres less than ten miles from the family's property was deemed the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge.

A federal Florida Panther Recovery Plan called for growing the cat population to three separate colonies of 240 each. In 1995, with the panther population having dipped to 20 or 30 and inbreeding causing genetic defects, biologists pulled a Hail Mary and released eight Texas cougars to mate with the natives. That worked: The cat population grew to an estimated 180 today — but only in one colony, in Southwest Florida.

Priddy says her family first saw a panther on its land in 1995. "It was quite a rarity," she remembers. "It was exciting to see one."

Negotiations between Southwest Florida stakeholders throughout the 2000s would expose a difference of approach to conservation. Some environmental groups — including the Center for Biological Diversity, an Arizona-based nonprofit — requested that the Department of the Interior designate large swaths of land near the Priddys' as critical panther habitat, which would have required the panther's well-being to be considered on any project requiring a federal permit. Landowners resisted the designation, fearing overbearing restrictions.

Surprisingly, other environmental groups, including Audubon of Southwest Florida, advised against the designation, and it was eventually denied. Instead, stakeholders including the Priddys (through their company, the Sunniland Family Limited Partnership) took advantage of a county stewardship program that would give farmers and ranchers credits for preserving parts of their land. Credits could be cashed in and traded to allow development on other sections of property.

The resulting Florida Panther Protection Program proposed that for every acre developed, three would be conserved. It would allow development of a new city on 45,000 acres of the landowners' combined 175,000 acres. It would also permit 10,000 homes to be built on 4,000 acres.

Although some environmentalists contended that this compromise still allowed for too much development, Brad Cornell, a policy associate for Audubon, says, "I give credit to the Priddys. She got together with the biggest landowners and said, 'We want to provide habitat. If you manage and restore lots of habitat, we will reward you.' We like that. That was kind of the revelation for me — a whole new way of getting conservation done. We don't have to go to court."

At the federal level, the group applied for a permit that would remove criminal penalties for harassing, trapping, or killing panthers in the course of executing the development plan. The federal government hasn't yet ruled on it.

Priddy says panthers are more problematic than the average person might think.

Though the FWC's lead panther biologist, Darrell Land, wrote as recently as 2011 that he has seen only two wild panthers in more than two decades "without cheating" — meaning without using tracking technology — Priddy says she began to see them "multiple times a week" over the past decade. "They sit on the side of the road and watch my car go by."

At one point, she was losing 5 or 6 percent of her calves to panthers. "That's what we live on. That's what we pay our bills from," Priddy complained to the Naples News in 2010.

"You don't see carcasses," Priddy explains. "That's one of the things that the public has a hard time understanding." A 140-pound cat, she says, will drag a 300-pound calf into bushes "where not even the vultures can find it."

Over the years, Priddy had eyed a seat on the FWC. The agency had been established in 1998 via a constitutional amendment that specified it would be funded in part with money from hunting and fishing licenses for the "purposes of management, protection, and conservation of wild animal life and fresh water aquatic life."

Priddy applied once, got passed over, then introduced herself to Gov. Rick Scott at an event in Naples and applied again in 2011. She was called to Tallahassee. Priddy remembers that her interview lasted 15 minutes; just the governor was there. "He came from private enterprise and didn't have a lot of background in hunting or fishing, so he was caught off-guard in how much interest there was in the position," she remembers. Priddy beat out 17 other applicants for the slot.

Priddy would become one of the most controversial figures in the FWC's short history.

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On the commission, she joined Brian Yablonski, external affairs director for Gulf Power Co., who espouses "free market environmentalism," and "Alligator" Ron Bergeron, an avid hunter and rodeo pro who is commonly regarded as a savior of South Florida wilderness though he also leads companies that build roads and develop land. The other commissioners were 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; and Richard Corbett, a Tampa mall developer (since replaced by Key West hotel magnate Robert Spottswood).

Audubon applauded Priddy's appointment. Hunters, however, were initially more skeptical. Chuck Echenique, a Tampa-based hunting guide and adviser to the FWC on bear issues, remembers his first impression: "I thought she was a very nice lady" — but because she wasn't well-versed in the nitty-gritty details that affected outdoorsmen, "completely incapable of doing her job."

Priddy had to learn about seeming minutiae like the effects of red snapper regulations off of the Panhandle versus the southwest coast and how to manage state rules with those imposed by the feds and the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council. "I knew nothing about that when I got on the commission," she admits.

But she would learn. Hunters including Echenique would even come to admire her. And she would become one of the most controversial figures in the FWC's short history.

Florida black bears mate between June and August, but their reproductive systems do a cool trick: fertilized eggs divide only a few times; then the blastocysts come to a standstill, not implanting in a uterus until November or December. If food is scarce, the bears can delay breeding. Active mostly at dawn and dusk, they scavenge for everything from insects to raccoons, but 60 percent of their diet is plants.

Mama bears go into dens around Christmastime. They give birth to blind, toothless, 12-ounce cubs, usually two at a clip, in January or February. In April, the family ventures out of its den. At 15 to 17 months old, females usually make homes nearby, while males wander off to new areas. Florida black bears usually live fewer than 20 years.

Prior to the arrival of European settlers, there were an estimated 11,000 black bears in Florida, but that number dropped to a low of 300 in the mid-1900s. By 1974, the state deemed them threatened. In 1994, the FWC banned hunting throughout the state.

The bears rebounded, and in 2002, there were 2,800 or so Florida black bears. But they had been driven to fragmented patches of territory, largely around protected forests or air force bases.

By 2012, the FWC had a new bear management policy, which had taken five years to develop and was approved by commissioners including Priddy. It aimed to counter human-bear conflicts with a public education campaign and the mass deployment of bear-proof trash cans. It specified that hunting would not be addressed in the plan because its purpose was to prevent the bear from becoming threatened again. The plan was designed to be applicable for ten years.

But the next year, a 54-year-old woman was mauled by a black bear while walking her dog in Longwood. Terri Frana's attack followed, and not long after that, there were two more attacks — in one, a 15-year-old was dragged into a ditch, resulting in deep lacerations on her face and head.

Hunting was back on the table, but Priddy could not pinpoint who suggested it: "There was just a realization that the bears have really recovered, and they're at a level we can hunt them on a sustainable basis and not hurt their population numbers."

In April, commissioners, including Priddy, voted unanimously to approve the weeklong hunt (though in a second vote on the matter in June, Bergeron changed his mind and was the lone dissenter). Rules were decided: People could shoot from a half-hour before dawn until a half-hour after dusk between October 24 and 30. Guns and crossbows would be allowed. Dogs could not track bears, though leashed dogs would be permitted to help follow the trail after a bear is shot.

Targeted bears would have to weigh 100 pounds or more. Females could be taken — so long as they were not with cubs. Hunters would have 12 hours after killing a bear to check it in with FWC staff. Licenses — $100 for state residents, $300 for outsiders — went on sale. The hunt would be open for two days minimum but could be called off once the "harvest quota" — 320 bears, 10 percent of the state's current estimate of 3,200 bears — was reached.

Critics cried that the estimates were based on old data from 2002 and that the hunt should be stopped or at least postponed until data from a new count, currently underway, is completed. They also complained that the hunt was an overreaction to the bear attacks.

The FWC's own website states that "the most successful way to reduce human-bear conflicts is to secure items that attract bears into neighbor[hoods]."

Thousands of people signed petitions and wrote letters in opposition to the hunt. Some drove for hours to attend FWC meetings. One came dressed like a bear with a target pinned to his belly.

O'Neal, the activist from Longwood, attended one of the meetings. "And I saw that they really are not listening to the public," he says. "They are listening to a few industry-related people: hunters, lobbyists, hunting organizations. The FWC had turned into a private hunt club."

He tried enlisting national organizations to oppose the hunt, but when they complained about the difficulty of mounting a court battle, he knew that "it was that moment where somebody had to grab the wheel." Along with a Central Florida homeowners' group called Speak Up, Wekiva (named for the river near Orlando), he filed a lawsuit.

The hunt rules "are contrary to the intent and plain language" of the law that created the FWC, he wrote in his complaint, and they are "directly adverse to the current will of the people." Under the "arbitrary and capricious" rules, he claimed, hunters could theoretically storm the woods on the first two days determined to get bears before the hunt shut down. With the 12 hours' lag time to report kills and 2,500 hunters already having obtained permits, it was feasible that almost all the bears in the forests could be dead in a weekend.

He asked a judge to declare an injunction and stop the hunt.

Aliese Priddy stands on the hardwood floor of a room in her guesthouse, surrounded on three sides by taxidermied animals. Four bucks with pointy antlers stretch their necks out from the walls. A fish hangs above a clock. Mexican bull horns above a doorway look as large as missiles.

A photo that captured this moment, taken for a newspaper profile, was copied and pasted to a petition started by the group Environmental Action and posted on care2.com. "Necrophiliac," wrote a commenter named Linda E. Chase. "Cat killer" wrote another commenter. The petition called for her to be ousted from the FWC, saying she "views the panthers as an obstacle to her and her developer friends from cashing in... This is no way for a wildlife commissioner to behave."

Over the summer, Craig Pittman of the Tampa Bay Times reported that Priddy had engineered proposed changes to the FWC's panther policy that would prioritize landowners' concerns. He revealed that she had applied for the permit that would allow for the killing of panthers and that she had even applied for a bear-hunting permit herself.

"Low life psychopath, fuck you!" came the response from someone named Sylvia Eric Genemans on a Facebook page, Hunt the Hunters. "Anyone that enjoys murdering an animal is a sadistic evil POS." Antihunting activists vowed to unleash the same power that had forced airlines to stop transporting animal carcasses this past summer after Cecil the Lion was killed in Zimbabwe.

A petition started in August on change.org calls for state legislators to "Fix your FWC problem!" It says that "there are 242,000 hunters in Florida and 19 million residents. Hunters comprise 1.2736% of the population. Hunting's annual economic impact is $1.6 billion while wildlife watching's annual economic impact is $4.9 billion... Being a hunter should be automatic disqualification for anyone applying for a position as an FWC commissioner."

Adam Sugalski, a 43-year-old vegan graphic designer and gun owner, began organizing protests around the state through a Facebook page called Stop the Florida Bear Hunt. "People say there's a bear problem," he muses. "I'm asserting there's a leadership problem."

Susan Hargreaves, an animal-rights activist who founded the group Animal Hero Kids, says the hunt is exposing an oft-repeated phenomenon she's seen in nearly 30 years of following the FWC. Every time hunting has been on the agenda, she says, "only at one meeting did they ever decide not to kill. People don't realize that the FWC are hunters and their budget comes from hunting licenses. It's the fox guarding the henhouse. It's worse — it's killing to get money for their department." Only $13.6 million of the FWC's $357 million annual budget comes from hunting licenses. An additional $13.4 million comes from taxes on hunting equipment through a federal program and is earmarked to support conservation.

She says that the minute bears were removed from threatened status in 2012, they were doomed to be hunted. She's seen this pattern before with other species: "They take them off the protected list. Three to six months later, they vote to kill them, and then we're all supposed to act surprised." Panthers, she predicts, will be next.

Hargreaves scoffs at the notion that hunters are performing a service by culling bears. "What else are they going to say? 'I want to kill so I can be a man and chop a head off and put it on my wall and my screensaver because I'm a you-know-what?' "

"Some of the emails and things people accuse me of are so atrociously off-the-wall."

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Commissioner Priddy laments: "Some of the emails and things people accuse me of are so atrociously off-the-wall. Gosh, if I could just explain to them so they would understand."

For one, she's not out to gun down panthers. She just wants to protect landowners if they accidentally disturb a panther or if one dies by mistake. She wants people to know the bear hunt was based on science. It's only because commissioners have done their job so well, she says, that the bear population has grown. "We did our job to recover them, and now we can sustainably hunt them."

Ranchers deserve more credit too, she suggests. "The panther has made a remarkable recovery" in large part due to landowners' actions. "You're criticizing us, but we're greatly responsible for the recovery the panther has had."

And ranchers need to make a living, she explains. Landowners face the same pressures as any business, as well as factors like inheritance taxes, high risks, and high costs. A single tractor can cost $200,000. "It's not like your little mom and pop with a pitchfork in front of the barn."

Public records show that Priddy's land holdings are worth more than $22 million. Financial-disclosure forms show she makes income from rock mining (via Vulcan Materials Corp.), oil production (via Breitburn Energy), and hunting (via Everglades Adventures, a Clewiston company that offers guided hunts of alligator, waterfowl, wild boar, dove, and whitetail deer using guns, bows, and harpoons). Priddy acknowledges that Everglades Adventures uses her property on a "per hunt" basis and that "they probably will do some" guided bear hunting (although a person responding to a Facebook inquiry at the company said they wouldn't be). She sees no conflict of interest, contending that making money off the bear hunt is no different from allowing other hunting that has long been permitted on her land.

Echenique, the hunter, points out that few operators are offering guided hunts because the prospects of actually killing a bear are so slim. "You need to be able to offer a good success rate,'" he says. "As a businessman, I'm not going to offer something I can't deliver."

Bears are primarily nocturnal, he explains, and stay in dense cover during the day. On public land, neither bait nor dogs for tracking is allowed, so "the simple truth of the whole situation is that... there is absolutely zero chance of bears being overharvested. I personally think — and most hunters think — that the chance of meeting the 320 bear limit is slim to none." Even if 2,100 hunters descend on the three most promising areas — the East Panhandle, North, and Central "bear management units," which respectively include the Apalachicola, Osceola, and Ocala National Forests — so there are 700 hunters in each, it would be "no problem," he says.

That's the same defense that's been used by the FWC's bear expert, Dr. Thomas Eason, to fend off criticism. He testified during a recent court hearing that Pennsylvania's hunt is three to four days with 130,000 hunters — and has only a 2 to 3 percent success rate. FWC hunting director Diane Eggerman has estimated that only 6.9 percent of Florida hunters will bag bears.

Echenique says that commissioners know what they're doing and that the "antis" should chill out. Still, his predictions for some species are depressing: "We've gotten to the point now where Florida is so fragmented that even with [wildlife corridors], the land is not going to sustain populations of bears and panthers that anybody wanted to see 30 years ago. It's impossible."

Audubon's Corbett also takes a long view. "The bear hunt is just a distraction," he says. "The real question is: Over the next 50 years, what are you going to save, what are you going to develop, and what are you going to restore?"'

The night she was attacked, Terri Frana and her husband, Frank, told wildlife officers that their two-doors-down neighbor was a "whack-a-doo" who had been known to feed bears. He had shown them photos, they said. When confronted, the neighbor, Eugene "Doug" Cifers, denied feeding them but mentioned that he had been approached to be the "Bear Whisperer" by a TV show. He was charged with placing garbage that attracts bears and pleaded not guilty.

Shortly afterward, though, neighbors and a garbage man all said that they too had seen him feed bears. Video surfaced. Cifers changed his plea to no contest. He was ordered to pay a $200 donation to the FWC and serve six months' probation.

The bears, however, got a death sentence.

On October 2, a hearing was held in Tallahassee, where Chuck O'Neal's request for an injunction came before Leon County Judge George Reynolds III. He declined to stop the hunt.

So this Saturday, October 24, hunters will climb into tree stands. Most of the 2,500 people who have purchased permits, including Miami Rep. Frank Artiles, a Republican from Miami, and Cooper City commissioner John Sims, will likely be in the woods. Long-ago rock star Ted Nugent bought a permit — he has vowed to be out there somewhere. Experts recommend that hunters try to shoot bears in "the middle of the middle" — through the lungs or heart — for the most humane kill.

In T-shirts provided by a grant from cruelty-free Lush Cosmetics, Adam Sugalski, Susan Hargreaves, and teams of activists intend to follow hunters into the woods with cameras to monitor compliance with the rules. They'll bring drones and a TV news crew. O'Neal is encouraging volunteers to photograph license plates to see if hunters have permits. His group also plans to blow air horns when the hunt has ended. And he hopes to help orphaned cubs whose mothers are killed.

And Priddy? She says she won't be in the woods with a gun, after all. She admits she bought a permit but says she has no intention of killing any bears. She spent the hundred dollars "to show my support for the hunt." But hunting one, she's decided, "is just not for me."

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Deirdra Funcheon