For the first time in 20 years, Floridians are going on a bear hunt

Black bear populations in the state have increased in recent years, leading to safety concerns and prompting officials to open up hunting.

Chris Urso/Tampa Tribune/AP
Nicole Cordano carries a sign while crossing the street wearing a bear costume in Tampa, Fla., Friday. Florida wildlife officials have sold more than 3,200 permits to hunters from all over, including 1970's rocker Ted Nugent and Liesa Priddy, a rancher and Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission member who voted to approve the new hunts. The hunt starts Saturday, and goes for a week, or until 320 bears are killed.

For the first time in over 20 years, Florida hunters will be able to legally kill black bears for one week beginning Saturday. But not everyone is so quick to grab a rifle.

Activists are objecting the state’s decision to sell over 3,200 hunting permits. Protests are taking place in more than a dozen cities across the state, including Tampa, Sarasota, and St. Petersburg.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission approved the hunt earlier this year after a contentious debate. But in the end, commision members cited the growing black bear population as a safety issue – there are an estimated 3,500 black bears in the state, a few hundred more than 1970s levels. Florida’s new developments are increasingly encroaching on rural areas, leading to an increase in encounters with bears.

Activists argue the focus should be on trash management and sealing garbage cans to prevent permeation of food, which is the main reason why bears end up in residential areas.

Florida does provide some help to those who want to purchase bear-resistant cans, but critics say that isn’t enough.

In the first hunt, permit holders will be able to kill 320 bears across four densely populated regions.

"Hunting's a good tool to stabilize populations because it's really the only effective tool we have for managing these growing populations at large scale," Diane Eggeman, division director for Florida’s hunting and game management agency, told the Associated Press.

On Tuesday, the Tampa Bay Times reported that black bear hunting opponents have obtained a list of nearly 3,000 people who purchased permits, and have used that information to contact hunters ahead of the big day:

The bear hunt has proven to be extremely controversial, with state wildlife commissioners voting to approve it despite overwhelming public opposition in letters, calls and emails. Wildlife commissioners touted the hunt as a population control method, but acknowledged that no one knows for sure how many bears there are. The latest estimate is about 3,300 bears.

Commissioners began considering a hunt in the wake of four bear attacks on women, three of them in Central Florida's suburbs and one in a rural Panhandle area. However, wildlife officials said the hunt would do nothing to blunt the threat of future attacks.

There are limitations. Hunters can’t kill bears that weigh under 100 pounds and cubs must not be in the vicinity. Shotguns, pistols, crossbows, bows, and revolvers are all approved weapons.

And hunters are required to record a kill within 12 hours at any of the nearly three dozen designated stations across the state. If the kill is not documented, the perpetrator could face fines or even prison.

Many activists are not assuaged by the restrictions.

"This hunt is just a slaughter," Major Jarman, 43, told the Associated Press while standing by a few dozen protesters in Gainesville. "I see bears on my family's land, and they've been more scared of me than the other way around."

The AP contacted permit owners but none would grant an interview. However, sources in the hunting business said the limited season wouldn’t yield financial benefits for them.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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