With Florida's first bear hunt in 21 years set to start Saturday, the number of bear hunting licenses the state has sold has now passed the 3,000 mark.
With 3,217 licenses issued as of Thursday, and an estimated statewide bear population of 3,300, that works out to nearly one hunter per bear — although the state has capped the total number hunters allowed to kill at 320.
Despite the ongoing controversy over the state wildlife commission's decision to allow the hunting of bears for the first time since 1994, one thing is clear: The license sales have been a huge financial boon for the agency.
So far, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has raked in more than $300,000 for the licenses. Because the commission did not formally approve the hunt until June, that's money that wasn't originally included in the budget that the Legislature approved earlier this year.
How the commission spends that money is ultimately up to legislators. But executive director Nick Wiley knows what he'd like to see: "We're going to ask for a majority of it, if not all, to be used to address human conflicts with bears."
Wiley wants to spend $200,000 to $250,000 of the money pouring in from license sales on distributing bear-proof trash cans in suburban areas where bears have proved to be a nuisance, and on such educational efforts as distributing fliers showing how to avoid attracting bears into back yards.
The commission's own bear experts say those steps are likely to be more effective than the one-week hunting season at preventing future bear attacks on humans.
The Legislature is likely to be receptive to that proposal. When a wildlife commission official proposed it at a recent committee hearing, lawmakers encouraged the agency to funnel as much of that money as possible to those uses.
Until 2012, Florida's black bears were on the state's imperiled species list. But as soon as they came off the list, wildlife officials say, hunters were pushing for a return of the long-banned hunt. Reopening hunting became a more urgent issue after a series of four bear attacks on women, three in Central Florida's suburbs and one in a rural part of the Panhandle.
Wildlife commissioners said they wanted to revive the hunt as a way to control a growing bear population, although the last full-fledged count of the bear population occurred in 2002 and the next one won't be completed until next year.
Opponents of the hunt sued to stop it, but lost. They have appealed that decision and plan to hold protests throughout the state today, as well as dispatching volunteers to monitor the state's bear check-in stations around the state Saturday. Wiley said his agency will have "all hands on deck" to make sure the hunt goes smoothly and no would-be poachers avoid detection and prosecution.
Florida residents paid $100 for their licenses for the one-week hunt, while out-of-state residents such as rocker Ted Nugent paid $300. Licensed hunters are allowed to kill one bear. If the statewide 320-bear limit is reached before the season ends, the hunt will be stopped.
The people who bought bear hunting licenses are from a wide range of backgrounds. In addition to Nugent, licensed hunters include wildlife Commissioner Liesa Priddy and state Rep. Frank Artiles, R-Miami. The list includes Dunedin neurosurgeon Harold Colbassani Jr.; the chief operating officer of Ferman Motor Cars in Tampa, Preston Farrior; and Bill George, whose Plant City company manufactures gear for alligator trappers.
Not everyone who got a license is gung ho about going after a bear. George, who hunts using a muzzle-loading rifle, said he bought his license just in case he sees a bear while he's out gunning for something else.
"It's a species of opportunity — if a bear happens to come by, (a license) gives you the opportunity to harvest a bear," he said.
The state's rules on this hunt forbid the use of dogs to run the bears up a tree.
While hunters are allowed to spray bear scent around to attract their prey, veteran bear hunters are predicting that the ban on dogs means few of the 3,000 hunters will even see a bear, much less get to kill one.
The state's rules mean there are only two ways to go after a bear, according to Chuck Echenique, owner of Rebel Yelp Calls and Outfitters in Thonotosassa.
A hunter will have to either sit in a tree stand and wait for a bear to show up, he said, or resort to what Echenique called "stalk and shoot." That means attempting to track a bear by following its tracks and scat, hoping to creep up close enough to put a bullet or an arrow in it.
"That's not a smart thing to do," he added.
Times staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Craig Pittman at [email protected] Follow @craigtimes.