After two days of state-approved hunting, nearly 300 black bears in Florida are dead, and the controversial hunt has been called off early.
Bear hunting had been illegal since 1994, but because of a growing population, the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) scheduled a seven-day project that allowed permit-carrying hunters to pay $100 each to kill up to 320 bears in total.
Florida residents have reported several bear attacks on their pets in recent years, though the commission maintains that the hunt was not an effort to specifically address these attacks. It’s a component in a bear management plan, the FWC says, that was designed in 2012.
“We started this with harvest objectives that were very conservative and very mindful that we were doing this for the first time in 21 years and there were uncertainties,” Nick Wiley, executive director of the Florida FWC, said at a press conference Sunday.
According to the state environmental agency, 3,778 bear hunting permits were issued, and hunting began at sunrise on Saturday. By late Sunday, 295 bears were reported dead – 139 killed by hunters from Central Florida, 112 from the eastern Panhandle, 23 from the northern region, and 21 in the southern region.
In the latter two regions, hunters are allowed to continue, but for Central Florida and the eastern Panhandle, the hunting ended in just one day. In those areas, 112 bears were killed – three times the regional kill quota.
“None of these numbers are worrying to us,” Thomas Eason, director of FWC’s division of habitat and species conservation, tells the Orlando Sentinel. “We have large, resilient, growing bear populations.”
But for other Florida conservation groups, the hunting of any of the estimated 3,500 black bears in the state raises ethical concerns. The conservation group Speak Up Wekiva sued the FWC and pressured the commission to halt the hunt early.
Chuck O’Neal, organizer of Speak Up Wekiva, said up to 500 bears could have been killed if it hadn’t been for his group’s confrontation with the FWC.
At the Rock Springs Run Wildlife Management Area, a hunting area in Central Florida, wildlife activists on Sunday held a vigil for the slain animals.
“The real raw fact of the matter of losing these bears is devastating to many of us in the community,” says Emily Ruff, who attended the ceremony. “Our primary concern is to honor and pay respects to the wildlife that’s been lost in this hunt...I feel in large part the public feels betrayed by the state for allowing this to take place.”
Other opponents of the hunt volunteered at kill stations across the state, where hunters must check in their prey within 12 hours. Hunters are not allowed to pursue cubs and adult female bears with cubs – only adults weighing 100 pounds or more. Violators face up to a $500 fine and 60 days in jail.
Until three years ago, black bears in Florida were considered a threatened species.
Culling, or the deliberate killing of an animal species to reduce its population, is a popular method among wildlife conservationists. In many cases, the overpopulation of a species can adversely affect other animals – and the humans – in its ecology. In the Northeast, swans, geese, and deer have all been targets of culling programs.
“I think there are two strong strains here that get confused in our society. There are people who are really committed to wildlife conservation,” conservation expert Will James tells the National Geographic last year. “And then there are animal rights advocates, who believe that every animal is ethically considerable and should have the right to live.”
The latter group, James explains, doesn’t take into account that nature has its own way of culling when a specific region is overpopulated by a certain animal, and that the ways animals die under these circumstances may entail more suffering.
“If wildlife managers don't cull, then nature culls, and we will see animals starving [and] habitat types that used to be vibrant and beautiful consisting of highly reduced numbers of species.”