UPDATED: As expected, FWC officials have approved the hunting of hundreds of black bears this fall.
In 1974, officials at the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) listed the Florida black bear as a threatened species. The protected status prevented the public from hunting the vulnerable bears, helping them to make considerable population gains despite increasing habitat loss.
By 2002, there were about 3,000 bears in the wild, but with the success of the conservation effort came the ultimate delisting of the bears as a threatened species in 2012.
Since the bears are no longer believed to face imminent extinction, seven FWC commissioners will convene at the Hyatt Regency in Sarasota today to determine whether hunters should be allowed to kill hundreds of bears this fall as a means of "managing" the species' population.
The commissioners are considering the hunt because it could be used to reduce the number of bears in suburban and urban areas, and, in doing so, curb "human and bear conflicts."
Though the exact number of bears allowed to be killed has not been finalized, Katie Purcell, FWC's assistant director of community relations, told New Times an entire fifth of the bear population is apparently expendable.
"We are still working on harvest objectives," she said. "However, bear mortality of around 20 percent of the population annually should stabilize the population. The total of 20 percent mortality would include hunting, vehicle strikes, and FWC’s euthanasia of conflict bears. Harvest objectives will be designated for each specific Bear Management Unit, and the length of the season will be determined by achievement of the objectives."
If the majority of FWC commissioners officially approve of the weeklong hunting season, which would run from October 24 to October 30 (but could end sooner if objectives are reached early), it is expected to draw hunters from across the United States, armed with crossbows and shotguns, into the wilds of Florida so they can have the bragging rights of being among the first in decades to shoot down the unsuspecting bears, who happen to be the state's largest land mammal.
However, critics of the hunt believe that since the 20 percent "harvest objective" is based on a black bear population estimate done in 2002, finalizing a rule to hunt the animals on possibly outdated data could be irresponsible, not to mention premature, as there is another estimate currently underway that is expected to be completed next summer.
Critics believe hunting the animals is unwarranted because the bears rarely attack humans. Indeed, multiple FWC officials told New Times that bear attacks are rare. Since 1976, only 16 people have been directly injured by black bears "in some capacity," four of which could be considered attacks. Purcell says "none" of the encounters was fatal.
"Bears are only approaching humans because of garbage left out. The answer is as simple as better, bear-resistant trash cans," said critic Wendy King. "Black bears were only removed from Florida's threatened list a few years ago, and now they want to allow hunters to kill 275 of them, [even when] it has been shown that simply cutting down the bear population does not work."
Activists are also concerned because the bears already face another significant threat: vehicles. In the past decade, about 2,000 black bears have died on roads due to car collisions.
One such incident happened in December 2014 near Big Cypress Seminole Reservation, when a motorist hit and killed a 300-pound bear in her SUV one night. Three men in a second vehicle stopped to help her but were killed when a third vehicle plowed into them.
Some activists fear that the bears have been blamed and demonized for the tragedy and that the hunting season is really a way of limiting them as a nuisance to humans.
The activists believe the animals have the right to flourish in Florida too, especially since they have not directly killed anybody in decades. They also fear the well-being of cubs if their mothers are hunted down.
The FWC already concedes to activists' claims 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]."