The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is considering another statewide hunt for the state's largest land mammal, following a controversial October hunt that killed roughly 300 bears in just two days, the first in more than 20 years.
But first, the the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) is holding webinars intended to educate the public about black bear management and gather feedback before it decides on another round of hunting. The first webinar was held Thursday, with others scheduled for May 31 and June 2.
The plan, which has already been met with fierce opposition from wildlife conservationists, is a response to the population surge of the once-threatened mammal. Until recently, the bears were considered "threatened," with as few as 300 believed to remain in Florida. Hunting them was banned in all but three counties in 1974, and then across the state in 1994, according to The Tampa Bay Times.
By the early 2000s, however, the population had climbed back to about 3,000 – what the FWC now calls "one of Florida's biggest conservation success stories." Black bears were removed from "threatened" status in 2012.
But conservationists and officials have strongly differed over whether the bears are truly out of danger, and whether safe management should include bear hunts.
"As bear numbers have grown over the past decade and human population has increased, we entered the next phase of management, which is conflict management," FWC said last year in an April 2015 draft rule, according to local ABC station WFTV. "In recent years conflict has increased dramatically. Bear calls have increased 400 percent over the last decade."
In 2015, after some residents reported run-ins with the bears, including a few who were attacked, state officials responded by permitting a week-long bear hunt with a quota of 320 kills. Hunters approached the limit in just one weekend, however, and the hunt was then called off.
Now, officials estimate that there are 4,350 black bears in the state. But some conservationists are questioning the numbers.
"It's pretty clear," Chuck O'Neal, a Central Florida businessman, environmentalist, and candidate for the state Senate told the Tampa Bay Tribune. "This is not a science-driven hunt. It's a political decision back-filled with junk science."
The bears may actually be in decline, Mr. O'Neal added. "If you look at the way they came up with their population numbers, they counted bears in a certain geographic area and then extrapolated that over the available habitat. But that habitat is ever decreasing; the forested areas are being replaced now by residential subdivisions." Increasing human population in bear areas could also endanger the bears, some contend.
Those in favor of a hunt defend the move as a safety decision.
"Most of those [critics] have never been in the woods," former FWC commissioner Richard Corbett said last year, according to The Tampa Bay Times. "They think we're talking about teddy bears: 'Oh Lord, don't hurt my little teddy bear!' Well, these bears are dangerous."
Others emphasize that hunting isn't the only solution to managing the mammals.
Black bears love to raid garbage cans, and have the ability to smell food more than a mile away. The FWC urges residents to secure items that could attract bears into homes, particularly their trash. The commissions says it has received more than 55,000 "bear calls" between 1990-2015 and about one third came from bears sorting through garbage.
"Do not feed black bears," Becca Nelson, an official with the FWC, recently warned residents on a local NPR broadcast, urging them to become "bear aware."
"Once bears become habituated to gaining that food access into your neighborhood, they're going to gradually lose their fear of people," she cautioned listeners. "If you're kind of close to them you want to scare them away. Make loud noises to get them to retreat, and definitely secure your attractants so they won't return."