TALLAHASSEE — Despite opposition from 75 percent of the people who wrote and called, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission voted unanimously Wednesday to bring back bear hunting this fall.
The hunt — the first in 21 years — is tentatively scheduled for one week in October. It is expected to result in the killing of up to 200 bears. The commission has slated a final vote for its June meeting, but bear-hunt opponents acknowledged they have no chance of stopping it now.
"I don't know that there's a whole lot we can do," said Kate MacFall, Florida state director of the Humane Society of the United States.
About 40,000 people wrote, called or emailed the commission about the proposed hunt, and three-fourths opposed it. But the commissioners, all appointed by Gov. Rick Scott, chose to side with the hunters clamoring for a chance to pursue a top predator, as well as the recommendation of their own biologists.
Wildlife commission chairman Richard Corbett, a Tampa mall developer, said the commission ignored the public opposition because "those people don't know what they're talking about. Most of those people have never been in the woods. They think we're talking about teddy bears: 'Oh Lord, don't hurt my little teddy bear!' Well, these bears are dangerous."
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 as "threatened" — one rung below endangered.
When they were taken off the list, there was talk of someday bringing back hunting. That "someday" plan accelerated to "this year" in response to a series of violent bear attacks on women — three in Central Florida, one in the Panhandle.
"Do you want blood on your hands?" a visibly angry Corbett asked reporters after the vote. "We don't. We have taken a step."
If a child were to be injured or killed by a bear, he explained, "the parents would go right after us" in court unless the commission took action.
However, the agency's hunting division director, Diane Eggeman, acknowledged that several scientific studies have found that allowing bears to be hunted appears to have no effect on the number of bear attacks.
Commissioners also took their vote Wednesday without having population numbers for the bears more recent than the ones from 2002. The agency's top bear expert, Thomas Eason, said a more accurate count may be available for the June meeting.
Even without a scientifically valid count, though, Eason said there are clear signs that the bear population has boomed. About 200 a year are killed while crossing highways, he noted.
Meanwhile the number of complaints about bears — lounging in hot tubs, lolling in hammocks, even breaking into a house to eat up all the Easter candy — has skyrocketed. In 2005, the number of complaints was 1,915. Last year it hit 6,600.
In a way, Florida already has a bear hunt — except the hunters are state biologists who kill troublesome bears. Last year they captured and killed about 35, Eason said. So far this year they have already killed 39.
Wildlife commissioner Liesa Priddy, a cattle rancher, asked Eason why the state couldn't relocate bears that cause problems.
"There's nowhere in Florida to put them where they won't come in contact with people," Eason explained. Priddy made the motion to approve the hunt.
More than 40 people showed up at Wednesday's meeting at Florida A&M's basketball facility to comment. Their number included an NRA official who called for a cheaper permit, a retired teacher who suggested applying bear-hunt population control methods to the overabundance of people, and a woman whose prize-winning dog had been mauled by a bear.
Bryan Wilson of Winter Springs stood outside dressed in a bear costume with a target stuck to its chest. Later Wilson, who is Central Florida coordinator for the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida, joined the crowd inside the meeting — but without his costume.
When asked why he took it off to speak to the commission, he said, "I would have been shot."
The bear hunting rules proposed by the agency's staff say:
• The hunt would last just one week, from Oct. 24 to 30, and only in daytime hours.
• Each hunter would be permitted to bag one bear per season.
• Florida hunters would pay $100 for a permit, and out-of-state hunters $300.
• No one could use dogs to chase their prey.
• Weapons they would be allowed to use: bows and arrows, crossbows, muzzle-loading guns, rifles, pistols and shotguns.
• Hunting would take place on both public and private land in four regions around the state where the local population of bears is estimated at 200 or more, which excludes the small colony that lives along the Chassahowitzka River in Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties.
• The limits on the number of bears that could be killed in each of those regions adds up to a statewide total of 200.
Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected] Follow @craigtimes on Twitter.