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Wildlife commissioners vote for no bear hunt in 2020

But commissioners leave the door open for future hunts in next decade

Florida wildlife commissioners voted Wednesday not to hold a bear hunt in 2020 — but they want the option to call for one in the future.

“We’re not proposing to go forward with a hunt today and we may not for a long time,” Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission chairman Robert A. Spottswood said just before the unanimous vote. “But who knows what will happen two or three years from now?”

Meeting in Panama City, the wildlife commission voted to approve a new “bear management plan” that’s supposed to govern how they oversee the state’s bear population for the next decade. The 200-page plan includes a section on “population management” that includes hunting as one of four tools.

As a result, commissioners spent about four hours getting an earful from both supporters and opponents of bear hunting. More than 50 people had signed up to speak. The pro-hunting forces wore camouflage or bright orange. Several of those opposed wore black T-shirts that proclaimed “Black Bear Defender.”

“You’ve kind of stirred up the ant’s nest here,” said Steve Gafford, a self-described “country boy” who said he opposed hunting bears because they’re “iconic animals” like panthers, manatees and dolphins.

Representatives of such groups as the Humane Society of the United States and Friends of the Wekiva River called for the commissioners to cut out the hunting option permanently.

RELATED: No new bear hunt before 2019, commission says

On the other side were speakers such as Corey Davis, co-founder of the American Houndsmen Association, who not only wants a bear hunt but urged commissioners to allow hunters to use dogs to pursue the big mammals.

“There is no logical or factual reason not to have a bear hunt,” Davis told commissioners.

One thing both sides agreed on is that they fear the state’s continued development will destroy important bear habitat. Several speakers mentioned their belief that new toll roads pushed by roadbuilders and backed by Gov. Ron DeSantis would wipe out so much habitat that it would lead to further human-bear conflicts.

The wildlife commission’s debate about bears has been haunted by the 2015 decision to hold the state’s first bear hunt in 21 years. The vote to have a hunt ran counter to the wide majority of public comments on the proposal.

The hunting season was supposed to last a week, during which hunters were limited to taking a total of 320 bears. But 3,000 people bought licenses, and the hunters killed so many bears over the opening weekend — 304 — that state wildlife officials shut down the hunt after only two days.

RELATED: Bear hunt shut down after two days.

The controversy grew hotter when biologists reported that among the bears that were killed were 36 lactating females, suggesting some cubs had been orphaned. But the biologists said that the hunt had been timed so that any orphaned cubs would be old enough to survive on their own.

The number of complaints about bears showing up in suburban areas has dropped, according to biologist Dave Telesco. He suggested the key was the state’s emphasis on promoting “bear-wise” trash cans that can’t be raided by wildlife and educating homeowners about how to live peacefully with bears.

The latest bear management plan, outlined for the commissioners by Telesco, estimates the statewide bear population has increased to nearly 4,000. Pro-hunting groups warned that as the number of bears and people in Florida continue growing, they will eventually clash.

Hunter Bill Hemberger said bears are no different from the state’s alligators: When the population reaches a certain point, “you got to do something about them.”

The state once listed Florida’s bears as a threatened species but took them off the imperiled wildlife list in 2012. A series of four attacks on humans occurred from 2013 to 2014, prompting commissioners to bring back bear hunting.