Florida’s controversial black bear hunt ended Sunday, just two days into a season that was supposed to last a week. The total of 298 bears killed by hunters was so close to the proposed weeklong limit of 320 that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) decided to end the hunt. In fact, the number of bears killed in some parts of the state had already passed regional limits by the end of the first day.
This weekend was the first time that black bears have been hunted in Florida since 1994, and the hunt drew strong criticism from conservation groups and from tens of thousands of concerned citizens.
“Opponents came from a variety of viewpoints,” said Craig Pitman, who has covered environmental issues for Florida’s largest newspaper, the Tampa Bay Times, since 1998. “Some were opposed to all hunting. Some opposed hunting bears but didn't object to hunting alligators, deer and so forth. Some said they could not support a hunt unless the state could say for sure how many bears there were to start with, which at this point it cannot."
Indeed, there has not been a statewide scientific population assessment of black bears since 2002, but according to Thomas Eason, the FWC’s director of habitat and species conservation, a study currently underway suggests that bear populations have increased in some parts of Florida.
Opponents were critical of the incomplete scientific data used to support the hunt.
Adam Sugalski, the campaign director for “Stop the Florida Bear Hunt,” called the bear hunt “undemocratic, unscientific, and immoral.” The Florida chapter director of Humane Society of the United States wrote that the FWC’s reasoning for the bear hunt “ignores science,” noting that black bears were listed on Florida’s Endangered and Threatened Species List as recently as 2012. A state judge who denied an injunction to stop the hunt agreed that much of the science that FWC was using to justify it was weak.
Eason, however, believes that the available data supports the need for a hunt. “Bear populations have increased to the point where FWC must now manage that success using a range of tools,” Eason said. “Regulated hunting has a long successful history of contributing to conservation in North America. Of the 41 states with resident bear populations, 33 of them conduct hunts, and in most cases hunting has occurred for decades.”
In a statement showing remarkable disregard for wildlife conservation from the head of an agency whose name contains the words “wildlife conservation,” Richard Corbett, the former head of the FWC who approved the plan to hunt black bears, said of critics that:
“Those people don't know what they're talking about. Most of those people have never been in the woods. They think we're talking about teddy bears: 'Oh Lord, don't hurt my little teddy bear!' Well, these bears are dangerous."
Despite Corbett’s suggestion that killing black bears would make people safer, a later statement from the FWC states that this is not the purpose of the bear hunt, and that that hunting is not an effective way to reduce bear-human conflicts.
Indeed, there are many non-lethal strategies that effectively mitigate conflicts between bears and people, including things as simple as garbage cans that seal more tightly so that the smell doesn’t attract bears. “If there are not too many bears in the woods, and conflicts with humans in suburbia can be almost completely solved with simple changes in human behavior, why is the state authorizing the killing of 320 bears?" Sugalski asked.
The FWC is currently planning on making the black bear hunt an annual event. However, Eason notes that “the hunt is just one component of FWC’s overall bear conservation strategy, and FWC will continue to invest much staff time and resources in efforts such as outreach and education, waste management, and removing bears that pose a threat to human safety.”
David Shiffman is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Miami, where he studies the ecology and conservation of sharks. He writes about marine science and conservation for the blog Southern Fried Science as well as for Scientific American, Slate, and Gizmodo. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.