Four years from now, Florida officials could revive the controversial practice of bear hunting as a way to deal with the bears' growing population, according to a new plan released Thursday by the state wildlife commission.
"This plan does not propose any hunting in the future," wildlife commission executive director Nick Wiley said. "But hunting is a part of the dialogue. People want to talk about it."
The state's bear population, which had dwindled to just 300 in the 1970s, rebounded to nearly 3,000 by 2002. The Florida bear boom has been accompanied by a big increase in the number of headlines about bears plopping into hot tubs, stealing birthday cakes and peering into houses.
So the plan unveiled by the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission notes that "if larger bear subpopulations continue to grow at their current rates, at some point they may exceed what suitable habitat can support." The strategies to deal with that "may include … regulated hunting."
A time line in the plan calls for "exploring options to slow population growth … including the use of hunting" starting in 2015.
Currently, 32 of the 40 states that have resident black bear populations use a hunting season to control the population. But Florida banned bear hunting in 1994 during a controversy over a bear that had been shot by a member of what was then called the game commission.
Hunting groups have repeatedly urged the state to repeal the ban, arguing that the surge in incidents shows the need for a hunt. Complaints about bears have shot up from 1,913 in 2005 to 4,191 last year.
Most were mundane reports of 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.
Five months ago, the wildlife commission voted to start the process for removing the subspecies of bears unique to Florida, Ursus americanus floridanus, from the state's imperiled species list. The catch: state biologists had to produce a plan for managing bears.
The plan released Thursday calls for creating seven "bear management units" where local groups would advise the state on dealing with bears. The largest, encompassing some 300 bears, would be centered on Ocala National Forest. The smallest, numbering just 20 bears, includes the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Hernando and Citrus counties.
"If the commission at some point wants to consider hunting," Wiley said, "then I think it would be based on looking at these individual bear management units."
The state's plan also calls for creating "Bear Smart Communities" in areas of high bear activity, involving "residents, local governments, businesses and schools in changing people's behaviors to reduce human-bear conflicts."
While people have reported being frightened or startled by bears, the bears' major predator is a human with a driver's license. The state says 158 bears were killed or euthanized after being injured on highways in 2010.
Environmental groups have objected to the plan to take the bear off the imperiled list, because protecting its habitat protects other species as well.
The public will get to comment on the plan through January, and then it will go to the wildlife commission in February. The commissioners may order revisions. The final vote is slated for June. If the plan is approved, that will mark the final removal of bears from the state's species list.
Staff writer Craig Pittman can be reached at email@example.com