ST. AUGUSTINE — For $15, you can adopt a Florida black bear from Defenders of Wildlife and receive a personalized certificate and photo of a real bear in the wild.
Teachers can download a Florida black bear curriculum from the state wildlife commission that demonstrates how habitat is being depleted, endangering the bears' way of life. And if you're an outdoorsy sort of Floridian who wants to pay $25 extra for the words "Conserve Wildlife" on your license plate, you'll drive around with a Florida black bear on your bumper.
In Florida, the native black bear has long been a poster mammal for wildlife conservation. But on Wednesday, the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission voted 6-0 to remove the state's native bear from its list of protected species.
It was one of 16 animals removed from the list and the decision could eventually open the door to black-bear hunting.
"This should be a celebration," Commissioner Rodney Barreto said. "This should be a pat on the back for all the people that have been out in the field to protect these animals and birds. At some point you have to take a step back and take a pause and say, hey, it's working."
At the meeting, held at World Golf Village, supporters of the bear called it an umbrella species — one that, with its presence and protected status, helps other animals that need similar habitat.
"Bears are generally a keystone species," said Guy Marwick of the Smart Growth Coalition of Central Florida. "As they are becoming well-populated in some areas, this gives them the opportunities to spread to the areas where they need to be and areas where they can diversify their genetic pool."
Others claimed those that the black bear doesn't need its supporters as much as those organizations need the black bear. Lane Stephens, a lobbyist for the Allied Sportsmen's Association of Florida—noted: "The anti-hunting organizations have made the black bear into some cuddly, fuzzy creature for their own financial gain."
In September, the commission directed staff to examine the 61 fish, invertebrates, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals on the state's list of protected species, and closely review those that had not been studied in the past decade.
"These are species that aren't federally listed, but at some point over the last 30 years were determined to have a high rate of extinction," explained Dr. Elsa Haubold, the leader of the wildlife commission's Species Conservation Planning Section.
The review showed the number of bears topped 2,000 in 2002—the most recent year for which numbers were available. The bear, listed as threatened in Florida since 1974, saw its population dip as low as 500 in the 1950s.
In order to remain on the list of "threatened" species, an animal must meet one of five standards; the Florida black bear was found to have met none of them.
"These lists can't be the Hotel California—you can check in any time you like, but you can never leave," said Commissioner Brian Yablonski.
None of the 16 creatures included in the vote will be officially removed until management plans are in place. A plan for the black bear, for instance, isn't expected until February, though a draft notes the state will "explore options regarding bear hunting."
The other species placed on track Wednesday to be removed from the list are: the Lake Eustis pupfish; the rivulus (a fish); the Florida tree snail; the gopher frog; the pine barrens treefrog; the alligator snapping turtle; the Florida ribbon snake; the red rat snake; the striped mud turtle; the Suwannee cooter; the brown pelican; the limpkin; the snowy egret; the white ibis; and the Florida mouse.
Snails, snakes and mice? None of them, certainly, has the charm of the Florida black bear.
The wildlife commission's own literature suggests that the bear's personality makes it a natural symbol for conservation efforts.
"Because children are naturally interested in, and attracted to, large charismatic mammals such as bears, the Florida bear acts as an ambassador and introduces students to ecological concepts and biodiversity in a concrete and relevant way,'' the commission's web site says.
That partly explains how the bear landed on the "Conserve Wildlife" license plate, which was created by the commission in partnership with conservation groups.
The plate generates about $500,000 per year for wildlife commission programs. It features the bear—with its shiny coat and broad shoulders—rising on two feet, hunched in the saw grass and surrounded by palmettos.
Among those who have the plate: Yablonski, one of the six commissioners who voted to take the bear off the list.