Last fall, when hunters killed far more bears than expected during Florida's first bear hunt in 21 years, the state's top bear expert said that was a sign that there were more bears in the woods than anyone knew.
A study unveiled Thursday backed that up, finding 4,350 bears prowling the woods, or about 60 percent more than the population found by a similar study 14 years ago.
"The good news is that bears are abundant in Florida," said Thomas Eason, top bear expert at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
That's only the adult population, not including cubs. Eason said there could be 1,000 to 2,000 cubs at any time too.
Eason did provide an important caveat: the new population estimate is based on data from before last fall's historic hunt, not after.
During a Thursday conference call with reporters, Eason responded to several questions on a second hunt by saying the staff has yet to decide on whether to recommend one. He added the decision is up to wildlife commissioners, who are appointed by the governor.
Wildlife commission executive director Nick Wiley said his staff had been waiting for the new population estimate before "starting the conversation" with the commissioners on whether to hold a second hunt.
The last hunt was designed to "slow the growth" of the population, Eason said.
A coalition of environmental and civic groups last week petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to offer Endangered Species Act protection to the Florida black bear as a way to block further hunting. The new numbers won't lessen that effort, said Jacki Lopez of the Center for Biological Diversity, which is spearheading the petition.
"I don't see how the new numbers could change the fact that the populations are extremely fragmented and face mounting threats from human population growth which will further isolate them and make them vulnerable to mortality from roads and proximity to urban areas," Lopez said in an e-mail to the Times.
Other biologists did not agree with Eason's use of the word "abundant" to describe the bear population.
The population number is a start, but it sheds little light on the proportion of reproducing females or the growth and survival rate of cubs, said Joe Guthrie, a bear biologist from St. Petersburg who worked on the Florida Wildlife Corridor expedition. "That's what's missing from the conversation."
To calculate the number of bears, Eason said, the agency's biologists used "hair snare corrals" to lure in bears with donuts and corn. As the bears would go for the treats, their fur snagged on a strand of barbed wire. The biologists gathered 15,000 hair samples that way to test the bears' genetics.
"That is a lot of hair samples," Eason said.
Using the genetic findings from those hair samples, Eason said, the agency then conducted computer modeling that yielded the new population estimate.
He credited the population increase in part to the state's long effort to preserve wildlife habitat through such land-buying programs as Preservation 2000 and Florida Forever — programs that legislative leaders have now rolled back.
"Even though it doesn't seem like it, Florida is still doing a really good job of preserving habitat," he said.
About 40 years ago, Florida had no more than about 300 bears left. The state banned hunting in all but three counties in 1974, then banned it statewide in 1994.
By 2002, wildlife biologists said the number of bears had risen to 3,000. Bears still remained on the state's imperiled species list until 2012. They were classified by the state as "threatened" — one rung below endangered.
Then, in 2012, the wildlife commission voted to take them off the list.
The idea of bringing back the bear hunt gained support after a series of bear attacks on people — three in Central Florida suburban communities and one in the Panhandle. All four were apparently tied to the availability of unsecured garbage cans.
When wildlife commissioners voted last year to proceed with the hunt, the most recent bear population count was from 2002. Some bear hunt opponents urged the wildlife commission not to allow a hunt until biologists could say how many bears there are in Florida.
But commissioners voted to hold the hunt anyway. Of the 40,000 calls, letters and emails sent to commissioners before their vote last summer, 75 percent of them urged the commissioners to vote 'no' on bringing back the bear hunt.
The hunt was supposed to last a week. Instead it ended after just two days. In that time, hunters killed 306 bears, including 36 mother bears.
At the end of the hunt, Eason noted the possibility of the bear population being larger than expected. He also credited the high number killed to hunters being well prepared for the hunt and the bears being unused to having people shoot at them.
Since the hunt, Eason said, complaints about "nuisance bears" invading backyard hot tubs, pools and garages have gone down slightly.
Contact Craig Pittman at [email protected] Follow @craigtimes.