FORT LAUDERDALE — State wildlife commissioners on Wednesday limited the number of bears that can be killed to 320 during next month's bear hunt, Florida's first in 21 years.
During a marathon meeting that drew objections from environmentalists and support from ranchers, commissioners also approved a controversial new policy on the future of the Florida panther.
The panther decision, which eases protections on the mammal, drew a wide variety of speakers, including a 9-year-old girl who brought her stuffed toy panther, a rancher who fretted that panthers would eat his grandchildren and a fishing captain who said the commissioners should open a hunting season on the state animal.
For bears, it's already open season. Commissioners in June approved a bear hunt from Oct. 24-30. The only decision they made Wednesday concerned how many bears could be killed.
Opponents of the hunt used it as an opportunity to make one last appeal, with several suggesting the commissioners set a hunting quota of zero.
Bears were on the state's imperiled species list as recently as 2012. But the number of complaints about bears invading suburban yards, rooting in garbage cans, swinging in hammocks and chilling in hot tubs has grown dramatically, biologist Thomas Eason said.
So far this year, he said, biologists have killed 70 bears because of complaints. An experiment with bear-safe garbage cans in one town led to a drop in bear complaints of 95 percent, Eason said, a fact that prompted some hunt opponents to suggest distributing better garbage cans would be more effective than allowing hunting.
Bear attacks on four different women — three in Central Florida, one in the Panhandle — in 2013 and 2014 prompted the commissioners to consider reviving the hunt, which ended in 1994. But they conceded that a hunt would do little to prevent future attacks, and would be unlikely to affect the bears that are causing suburban problems.
The state did prosecute three people who were feeding some of the bears involved in one attack.
Before approving the hunt this year, the commissioners invited public comment. They received 40,000 calls, letters and emails, 75 percent of them opposed to the hunt. Commissioners approved the hunt anyway.
The hunt has proven popular with hunters, though. So far nearly 2,000 have bought licenses to kill a bear, which is nearly two-thirds of the estimated bear population of 3,150.
One bear hunter who bought a license the first day was wildlife commissioner Liesa Priddy, an Immokalee rancher who has lost cattle to a bear and to panthers. She made the motion to set a quota of 320 bears.
Priddy also pushed the agency to write a new policy for dealing with panthers and helped executive director Nick Wiley write the first version.
The initial version had no input from the agency's own panther biologists, who objected to some of the language Priddy came up with that said panthers had reached their carrying capacity in Southwest Florida. That version drew so many other complaints at the commission's June meeting that they put off a vote until Wednesday.
Wiley and his staff — including the panther biologists — came up with a new, softer version of the policy, which resolved some objections but not all. The new one makes it plain that it's not an attempt to take panthers off the endangered list, and that the main focus will not be saving livestock from panthers. However, the new policy still calls for revising the standards for what makes panthers endangered, and critics say it favors landowners over the cats.
Commissioner Ron Bergeron, who said he'd seen his first panther in 1949, voted against both the panther policy and the bear quota. He made an impassioned speech on the bear hunt questioning why "this train has moved so rapidly," considering the agency still doesn't know how many bears there are. The bear quota passed on a 3-2 vote, and the panther policy passed 4-1.
The meeting was tense, with wildlife officers blocking a Times reporter from asking commissioners questions during a break, and threatening to throw another reporter out for trying to talk to one of the speakers.
Contact Craig Pittman at [email protected] Follow @craigtimes.