Until three years ago, the Florida black bear was a legally protected species in Florida, not to mention one of the state's most prominent symbols for wildlife conservation.
Now, the bear is about to get a target on its back.
On Wednesday, Florida's wildlife commissioners plan to vote on bringing back bear hunting, a practice not seen in Florida in 21 years.
They are taking that step in the wake of four bear attacks on humans in 2013 and 2014 — but nobody will say that's why. In fact, wildlife officials can't agree on the reason and admit there are some basic questions they can't answer.
According to wildlife commission executive director Nick Wiley, the attacks aren't prompting bear hunts because they can't prove they would reduce future incidents.
"We have never proposed bear hunting as a solution to conflicts" with humans, Wiley said. Instead, he said: "It's to control the bear population. We don't know for sure it will lessen the conflicts. We don't have the science to prove it."
He did concede that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission does not know how big the bear population is. Or how many hunters may want to shoot a bear. Or how much money a bear hunt might make for the state.
Wildlife commission chairman Richard Corbett, however, provides a different answer as to why the bear hunts should return. He said commissioners want to shield the state from legal liability.
"We don't want to be exposed if there's another attack," said Corbett, a Tampa mall developer. That's why, he said, "we've got to take action to protect children and other people."
But bear season is not a legal strategy, Wiley said.
"Liability has not been an issue that we've been concerned about," he said. "He may not understand our legal situation."
The wildlife commission's legal staff said the state is immune from the kinds of lawsuits that Corbett is alluding to.
Even if someone were to sue, Wiley said, the state could show that it has done a lot to prevent further bear attacks — everything from showing people how to lock down their garbage can lids to killing more than 50 bears that had been the subject of nuisance reports so far this year.
That aggressive handling of complaints about bears began with the four attacks. Three occurred in Central Florida suburban areas and one in a rural area of the Panhandle. Of those, Wiley said, only the one in the Panhandle is likely to be anywhere near where hunters will track and kill bears — another sign that the hunt won't do much to prevent future conflicts.
The commission's attitude toward bears has changed since 1974, when the species was first listed as threatened. Hunting was banned in all but three counties, and the commission banned it in those counties as well in 1994.
In the 1950s, the bear population was estimated at about 500. In 1998, the bear was featured on the state's "Conserve Wildlife" license plate, which raises $500,000 a year for wildlife commission programs. By 2002, the commission's scientists calculated the bear population had grown to about 3,000.
Ten years later, the commission took the animal off the threatened list, proclaiming it a major victory for conservation.
Yet the new designation came only because it changed the definition of "threatened" — not because the population count had grown.
Even then, biologists suggested in their management plan for the bear that hunting might return to Florida in the future.
"From Day 1, that ball was rolling," said Kate MacFall, Florida director of the Humane Society of the United States, which opposes the bear hunt. "They were already trying to make it happen."
That's true, according to wildlife commissioner Liesa Priddy, a cattle rancher. Bear hunting was always something the commission was interested in reviving. The attacks "just prompted us to take a look sooner, to move the timeline up," she said.
Yet Florida wildlife experts still don't know how many bears there are. They have begun a fresh population count, but it won't be complete until next year. In two parts of the state, they have found a marked increase, but in two other parts, the population has remained the same.
Priddy thinks the population may have boomed in the three regions yet to be counted. Corbett believes overall the bear population has climbed.
"We know there's been a significant increase in the population," he said.
Bear biologists estimate there has been an increase based on how many are killed by cars each year — about 200 — and how many complaints are filed regarding bears lounging in hot tubs and hammocks and, occasionally, breaking into homes to eat Easter candy. In 2005, the number of complaints was 1,915. Last year, it hit 6,600.
So why not wait until the latest population count is settled next year? Wiley said there is no need.
"We feel like we have sufficient justification and basis for going forward with the hunt," Wiley said.
The hunt is tentatively scheduled for one week in October. It is expected to kill up to 200 bears. Florida hunters can get a license for $100, and anyone from out of state can get one for $300.
Nobody knows how much money that might mean for the wildlife commission because nobody knows how many hunters will sign up.
"It could be 500. It could be 5,000," Wiley said. "But this is not about making revenue"
When the bear hunt first came up, the wildlife commission sought public input. Some 40,000 letters, emails and phone calls poured in, and 75 percent urged the commission to vote down the hunt. Instead, in April, they voted unanimously to support it.
Afterward, Corbett said those thousands of opponents didn't know what they were talking about and that's why the commission paid no attention to their opinions.
But at least one die-hard Florida hunter who's spent plenty of time in the outdoors has no interest in hunting bear.
Scott Williamson, a Panhandle real estate agent, has hunted every way you can hunt in Florida — with a rifle, a muzzle-loader, a shotgun and a bow and arrow. He has hunted deer and turkey and other prey. Though he has had close encounters with plenty of bears, he doesn't agree with the push to bring back the hunt.
"Unless you open up the hunt in the subdivisions where the bears are a problem, how is hunting going to solve the problem?" he asked.
In each of the four attacks — which occurred in December 2013, April 2014, and then two last December — someone had left trash cans out and unsecured, attracting the bears' attention and making them associate people with food.
In one of the Central Florida cases, a neighbor was charged with feeding the bears — by hand. He told the investigators that "he has been approached by a television producer to be the 'bear whisperer.' "
Opponents of the bear hunt tried in April to convince the wildlife commissioners to vote against the proposal, to no avail. They also tried appealing to Gov. Rick Scott, who appointed all the commissioners.
A spokesman said Scott supports what they are doing.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Craig Pittman at [email protected] Follow @craigtimes.