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Hillsborough County, city of St. Petersburg tell Tallahassee to end black bear hunt

Richard Sajko of Valrico talks about how he killed one of the two bears on the back of his pickup truck during Florida's black bear hunt in 2015 at the Rock Springs Run Wildlife Management Area near Lake Mary. On Thursday, the Hillsborough County Commission and the St. Petersburg City Council both voted to send letters to Tallahassee demanding the end of the black bear hunt. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]
Published Jun. 3, 2016

They may not have any power to change it, but Hillsborough County commissioners took a symbolic and united stance Thursday against the state's black bear hunt.

In a 6-0 vote, commissioners approved a resolution and letter to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission opposing this year's hunt.

The resolution came at the urging of Commissioner Stacy White, a self-described "avid outdoorsman" and hunter who said he supported hunting as a conservation tool for other animals — but not for the black bear.

"To put things in perspective, we have 700,000 white-tailed deer, 200,000 wild turkey and a million alligators in this state," he said. "In contrast there are at most 4,300 black bears across this state and the number may be as low as 3,000."

Last year's bear hunt, the first in Florida in more than two decades, ended after just two days because the 320-bear limit was nearly reached. It was supposed to last a week.

Tom Graef, regional director for the FWC, said the bear population is growing and they are moving into residential areas. Hunting is the only way to stop that, he said.

"More bears living among people means more human-bear conflicts and more vehicle accidents, putting more people and property at risk," Graef said during public comment.

Another speaker, Phil Walters, told commissioners they "don't have a dog in this fight" because Hillsborough doesn't have a black bear population. But they'll regret their vote, he said, if the county ever sees "an apex predator in close proximity to people."

White rebuffed that characterization as "absolutely, unequivocally false," noting that the bear's diet is mostly plant-based.

"I would welcome the opportunity to have a black bear population here in the county," White said.

On the other side of the bay, the St. Petersburg City Council on Thursday also passed a resolution 8-0 opposing the bear hunt. The sponsor of the measure, Council member Karl Nurse, noted the high number of mother bears killed last year that likely lead to the death of many cubs and the next generation of bears.

Pinellas County passed a similar proclamation in May.

But Hillsborough's resolution, spearheaded by an east Hillsborough conservative and backed by a Republican-controlled commission, was a pointed shot at the Republican administration in Tallahassee. The FWC meets later this month to discuss bear management.

As it was, the vote drew dozens of activists and hunters to speak out and attend Hillsborough's meeting, a rarity for a simple, relatively powerless, resolution.

Representatives from the local chapters of the Audubon Society and the Sierra Club joined the voices lobbying commissioners to approve the resolution. The room of activists broke out into applause and cheers when commissioners voted unanimously for it.

Megan Sorbo, the 10-year-old environmentalist who has become a mini-celebrity traveling across the state with a pink stool, pleading against the bear hunt, said the resolution "will help to make my voice and other citizen voices to be heard a little louder where it was ignored last year."

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