Florida mulls second hunt to deal with a bear of a problem

Despite controversy over Florida's last bear hunt, the state says populations may still be high enough to justify another round. Critics say the state should promote coexistence over killing.

Rafael C. Torres/ REUTERS/ File
A black bear lies on a hammock at a residential back yard in Daytona Beach, Florida during an early evening in 2014. The bear used the hammock for more than 15 minutes before being startled when the back yard lights were turned on, according to the photographer.

Just months after Florida's controversial black bear hunt in October, the state's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission ruled yesterday that bear populations were already large enough to potentially justify another bear hunt this year.

The Commission will meet in June to discuss options.

"The rule adopted last year technically established a standing season that is in place unless changed by the Commission," Tammy Sapp, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission communications manager, told The Christian Science Monitor via email, "but the rule requires Commission approval of harvest objectives annually and before a hunt can take place."

Although bear hunts ended in Florida during the 1990s, changing populations and habits led the state to consider another round.

The impetus for last year's hunt, which occurred in October, was an increasing bear presence in suburban areas. Black bears enjoy snacking on the contents of easily-opened trash cans. After four incidents of bears interacting directly with humans, and many raided trash cans, the state decided to reinstate the hunt.

The Humane Society of the United States' Southern Region Director Laura Bevan spoke with the Monitor by phone about efforts to oppose the hunts.

"Problem bears in human areas are already dealt with harshly by officials," Ms. Bevan tells the Monitor. "The October bear hunt targeted bears in the woods, not the problem bears."

More than 100,000 people signed a petition to stop that hunt, but to no avail. Although some groups took the matter to court, they were able only to achieve a ruling that the weeklong hunt could be cut short if the bear quota (320 bears) was met in less than the scheduled time.

Hunters met that quota statewide in a weekend. In some areas, local quotas were met in less than a day.

Many of the bears killed in October's hunt were killed on private property, likely close to feeding stations set up by hunters to lure the animals in. Although official regulations state that hunters are not allowed to kill animals with their heads in a feed bucket, anything goes when nobody is looking.

"We don't even like calling it a hunt," said Bevan.

By instituting last year's bear hunt, and planning to potentially reinstate the controversial event this year, Florida is attempting to deal with a very real problem. Although the black bear was last listed on Florida's Endangered and Threatened Species list in 2012, populations have risen across the state.

The same issue confronts urban areas across the country. In 2012, one ecologist estimated that there were around 2,000 coyotes roaming the streets of Chicago. The expansion of human settlement and a corresponding rise in urban wildlife populations bring challenges for city and state officials, who are forced to make decisions about how to coexist, or not, with these animals.

Critics of Florida's bear management program say that there is a better way.

"Trophy hunting is not a solution," Tracy Coppola, director of the Humane Society of the United States' Wildlife Abuse Campaign. 

Ms. Coppola says that the best way for concerned citizens to make a difference for their wildlife populations is to speak out, and be vocal about the direction of state management.

"What is a theme with native carnivores (including omnivorous bears), is that a lot of times state management will rush ahead and 'manage' the population through hunts like Florida's," she says, "whatever public opinion may be."

Bevan told the Monitor that despite growing bear populations, Florida has not yet instituted a successful program to help teach residents how to coexist with bears.

Bevan and Coppola both mentioned the effectiveness of bear-proof trash cans in deterring ursine urban exploration. Although these trash cans may be more difficult for garbage collectors to use, they are already the norm in many Western states, Coppola says.

For now, Bevan says, "We've basically invited the bears to dinner."

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