To hunt or not to hunt.
Florida is a bustling state — the third most populous in America. Surging bear numbers over the years have been further crowding Florida’s landscape, putting humans and bears in increasing conflict.
Though the black bear population in Florida hovered around 500 in the 1970s, successful conservation efforts have brought that number up to more than 4,000 today.
That population surge convinced Florida wildlife officials to reinstate their black bear hunt last fall after a 21-year hiatus, despite strong objections from some environmentalists and animal rights defenders who called it a trophy hunt.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) executive director Nick Wiley argued that the “primary purpose of a limited bear harvest is to manage the bear population while providing carefully regulated hunting opportunities.” in a statement last fall to the Daily Mail.
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When hunting season came around in 2015, Floridian hunters lined up to buy permits to kill a total of 321 black bears.
Though it was supposed to last a full week, the hunt was suspended after a whopping 304 bears were killed in the first 48 hours. Public outcry followed when it was revealed that baits had been used illegally to lure bears into the hunters’ range and that cubs and mother bears still nursing had been shot.
Protests across the state continued into this spring. “We’re not just a bunch of scrawny granolas who believe there shouldn’t be bear hunting,” Adam Sugalski, founder of Stop the Florida Bear Hunt, told National Geographic.
“We’ve got doctors, lawyers, developers, state senators, an ex-Navy sub commander, soccer moms, and a wide range of others lined up with us.”
Last week, amid the continuing public outrage, the FWC voted to forego its 2016 bear hunt and postpone it at least until fall of 2017. Still, the debate over the merits of the bear hunt continues.
Bears that wander into the suburbs present a real threat to people. But many argue that non-lethal methods are more effective in lowering human-bear conflict. For example, restricting human access to wild berries on which bears rely would reduce their need to venture out of the woods in search of food.
The hunt is also considered by some as a biologically sustainable way to maintain a proper balance of bear populations relative to available habitat.
It is true that Florida’s black bear population is currently booming, but critics wonder how long this trend will continue. Nearly 700 bears died in Florida in 2015 from a combination of hunting, collisions with motor vehicles, and being put down as nuisance or conflict animals. Perhaps efforts to thin bear populations are premature.
The debate will surely resume when it comes time to vote on whether the bear hunt will return in 2017.
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