Florida bear hunt culls once-imperiled population

A controversial bear hunt in Florida killed 304 bears three years after being taken off an endangered list, indicating that finding a long-term balance for the bears will take time.

Luis Santana/The Tampa Bay Times/AP
Hunter Byan Smith covers a black bear to prevent the meat from spoiling after biologists did their measurements and samples during the first legal black bear hunt in Florida in more than two decades at the Rock Springs Run Wildlife Management Area near Lake Mary, Fla.

Florida sponsored a black bear hunt just three years after the animals were removed from special state protection as a threatened species, sparking questions about the small window for bear-human balance within the state.

State officials say the controversial bear hunt – which resulted in the deaths 304 bears – was necessary after ursine interactions got out of hand. Some conservationists say the hunt came too soon, Todd Wilkinson reported for National Geographic. 

The bear's removal from the endangered list in 2012 after the population went up to more than 3,000 was "one of Florida’s biggest conservation success stories," and should mark a shift toward sustainability for the population, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

The data shows the population of bears in Florida has surged right alongside the population of humans The number of run-ins between bears and humans quadrupled from 2002 to 2012. Five bear attacks on humans occurred since 2013, one right before the hunt, reported Craig Pittman for the Tampa Bay Times.

"In a state that has seen such explosive human population growth, the bisection of so much habitat means that any wide-ranging apex predator is going to have difficulty making a living in that matrix of development," Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, told National Geographic.

Florida is the nation's third most populous state, and is far more urban than many of the Western states with large bear populations. Additionally, Florida's wild habitat is interspersed with its cities, meaning a population of large, roving mammals is likely to interact with humans much more frequently - and dangerously - than in other states. 

The Florida wildlife commission has moved or euthanized bears that enter populated areas, and about 200 bears die in car accidents each year, National Geographic reported. The wildlife commission admitted in a follow-up report the hunt may not impact the bear accidents, but is designed to regulate the bear population overall. 

All this gives Florida a low threshold for error in managing the bear population. 

"It’s going to take several years before they work the kinks out, and there will be times when it’s not pretty," Brad McNaughton, a bear hunter in Georgia who avoided the hunt because of the controversy, told National Geographic.

The wildlife commission says that it relied on science to design a hunt that will help maintain a balanced bear population. Florida's black bear population had dropped from an estimated 11,000 down to 200 in 1974, when the animal made the state's list of threatened species. Now it has surged up to several thousand, but the ideal number of bears proves elusive. 

"Until this hunting season, Florida was the only state with an estimated bear population of over 600 bears that did not have a bear hunt," according to the commission's bear hunt report.

The hunt was set for a week in October, but after two days they were close enough to the planned limit of 320 bears that they called off the hunt. Wildlife officials say this means more bears are flourishing in Florida than they originally thought, perhaps closer to 6,000 than the estimated 3,500, Karl Etters reported for the Tallahassee Democrat. 

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