The Florida black bear, once hunted statewide, has been legally protected as an imperiled species since 1974.
But that may be about to change. State wildlife officials unveiled a roster Tuesday of 16 species they will recommend be removed from Florida's list of protected animals. The list includes the white ibis, snowy egret, limpkin, brown pelican — and the big one, the Florida black bear.
Wildlife commission biologists say the bears should be taken off the list next month because, while they numbered a mere 500 in the 1950s, they topped 2,000 in 2002 — the most recent year in which biologists made a statewide population estimate.
"We feel very comfortable, even though the latest data is from 2002, that the data supports that" delisting recommendation, said Dave Telesco, the state's black bear management coordinator. The final decision is up to the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, meeting June 8 in St. Augustine.
If the commission votes to kick bears off the imperiled list, that does not mean hunters can immediately start loading their guns — but the state's proposed management plan says, "Explore options regarding bear hunting."
To longtime bear hunter George Robinson, 69, who keeps five bear-hunting dogs ready to roll, that's good news.
"Bears right now are totally out of hand," said Robinson, who lives near Gainesville but hunts mostly in Georgia. "They've become major, major pests."
Nuisance bear complaints have been on the rise, zooming from 1,913 in 2005 to 4,191 last year. Some were as mundane as a bears overturning garbage cans, but some were more spectacular, such as the bear that hung out around the Orlando Hard Rock Hotel's pool until it was captured. Currently, 31 of the 40 states with resident black bear populations have a hunting season.
However, Manley Fuller of the Florida Wildlife Federation said taking bears off the list could be a big mistake — not because it would lead to hunting but because protecting their habitat protects a lot of other species as well.
"I think the Florida black bear is the umbrella species in terms of wildlife conservation in Florida," he said.
To Laurie Macdonald of Defenders of Wildlife, the number of nuisance bear complaints is a strong argument for protecting what's left of where bears live.
"We'd be very disappointed to see the bear delisted," said Macdonald, who has been pushing to protect bear and their habitat since the early 1990s.
Taking bears off the list because there are an estimated 2,000 of them shows an inconsistency in the new system. There are an estimated 5,000 manatees, but they will still be listed as endangered.
Some species will actually get greater protection under the new listing system. Burrowing owls, for instance, will be upgraded from "species of special concern" to "threatened."
The wildlife commission has wrestled with the problem of how to classify species in need of protection since 1995, when it first attempted to add the ibis to its list and outraged legislators cut its funding. Species on the list get more research funding and get legal protection for their habitat under a variety of city and county development ordinances.
In 2001, for instance, Pasco County commissioners rejected plans for a mobile home park because it was to be located in prime bear habitat.
The practice of hunting Florida bears came to an end because of one dead bear — because it was shot by Ben Rowe, who sat on the state's game commission.
"I didn't do anything wrong," Rowe contended after the furor over the killing reached the pages of Sports Illustrated.
Although Rowe's bear hunt was legal, his timing was abysmal. While Rowe was killing his bear, his agency was asking the federal government to add the subspecies of bears unique to Florida, Ursus americanus floridanus, to its endangered species list.
Thousands of bears once roamed every county in the state until loggers wiped out large swaths of the forest they called home. By 1974, only a few hundred were left. Their future seemed so precarious that the state banned hunting them anywhere but in Apalachicola National Forest, Osceola National Forest and in two sparsely populated counties, Baker and Columbia.
By the time the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considered listing them in 1992, federal officials conceded the bear could very well be headed for extinction but said they didn't have money or time to deal with the question right away.
Meanwhile, animal rights activists capitalized on the public outrage over Rowe's dead bear by mounting a campaign to ban bear hunting. Angry letters poured in. Soon the commission's own staff recommended ending the hunt because "the people of Florida are in the substantial majority opposed to the continuation of bear hunting seasons."
In 1994 the commission bowed to public opinion and banned hunting in the rest of the state. Since then, nearly 80 percent of the bear deaths have been caused by vehicles. Tedesco said about 150 bears a year are run over on Florida highways.
Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected]