Florida wildlife officials will not hold a bear hunt in 2019, but the door remains open for one in 2020.
Four years ago, the state held its first bear hunt in 21 years. Hunters quickly killed 304 bears — so many that the week-long hunt had to be shut down after just two days. Controversy erupted over the fact that among the dead were 36 lactating females.
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As a result, when the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission debated holding a second hunt in 2016, the proposal failed. And when the commissioners brought the idea up again in 2017, they ultimately decided not to even discuss holding another bear hunt until 2019.
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Now the agency’s executive director says the commissioners won’t take up the subject before December.
First, though, will come the updated bear management plan, said Eric Sutton.
“As directed by our commissioners two years ago,” he wrote in an email to the Tampa Bay Times, “we have been focused on updating and revising (the) Bear Management Plan before considering future bear hunts. We plan to release the updated plan for public comment in early October and present to commissioners this December."
That updated plan, he wrote, “will fully address bear hunting and any decisions in that regard will be up to our commission.”
Until 2012, Florida’s black bears were on the state’s imperiled species list. But as soon as they came off the list, wildlife officials say, hunters were pushing for a return of the long-banned hunt. Reopening hunting became a more urgent issue after a series of attacks on humans in Central Florida and the Panhandle.
Commission proponents of reviving a bear hunt said they saw it as a way to control a growing bear population, although the last full-fledged count of the bear population occurred in 2002. The commission sold more licenses to hunt bears than the estimated number of bears. It later used the money to help communities in bear habitat distribute bear-proof trash containers.
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Of the 40,000 people who sent in public comments about that 2015 bear hunt, 75 percent opposed it. One commissioner, then-chairman Richard Corbett, a Tampa mall developer, said he and his colleagues ignored the public’s wishes 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.” He subsequently resigned.
Opponents protested and one even showed up at a meeting dressed as a bear, but the commissioners voted for the hunt 6-1. Opponents sued, but lost. They appealed to then-Gov. Rick Scott to stop the hunt, but he did not.
The subsequent images of blood-soaked bear carcasses being checked in by hunters did not build public support for doing a second hunt.
The June 2016 meeting to discuss a second bear hunt was held in East Point, a Panhandle town where two people had been attacked by a bear, although the commission’s staff said that was just a coincidence. At that meeting, the commissioners voted to postpone a second hunt until 2017.
At their April 2017 meeting, this one held in the Panhandle town of Havana, wildlife commission staff reported that the bear population could handle the pressure of a second hunt. The number of bears had hit about 4,000 and continued growing well throughout the state, they said.
However, a public opinion poll commissioned by the agency found that only 48 percent of the people questioned would support a second bear hunt, while 43 percent were completely opposed to it.
With so little public support, then-executive director Nick Wiley told commissioners “we’re not ready to go back into another hunting season.”
As a result, a motion to hold a 2017 hunt failed on a 4-3 vote. Then the commissioners voted unanimously to ask their staff to update the agency’s bear management plan, including a possible hunt — and report back in 2019.
The commission meeting where holding another bear hunt will be discussed is scheduled for Dec. 11. The location has yet to be announced.