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Hunting season opens on bears across Florida

Hunter Rick Sajko of Valrico talks about how he killed one of the two black bears in the bed of his pickup truck at Rock Springs Run Wildlife Management Area near Lake Mary on Saturday. Sajko said he had been waiting “20 some-odd years” to be able to kill a bear in Florida.
Published Dec. 9, 2015

Florida's first bear hunt in 21 years began Saturday, bringing camouflage-clad hunters flocking to the forests for a shot at going down in history. By day's end they had killed 207, according to state wildlife officials — so many that two regions would not be allowed to kill any more.

"I've been waiting 20 some-odd years to kill a bear in Florida," said Rick Sajko, 48, a pool enclosure contractor who has killed bears in his native Pennsylvania and in Canada. His Florida prize, he said, he shot at 60 yards.

"One shot and down it went," said Sajko, of Valrico.

He said he expected to process and eat the meat from his 178-pound bear, turn the pelt into a rug, and apply the oil to his snakeskin boots. As for the fat, "it makes excellent pies," he said.

Meanwhile, monitors such as Astevia Willett of Largo kept careful track of the number of bears killed, vowing to make sure the state wildlife agency did not allow more bears to be killed than 320, the limit set for the entire state.

Willett, who drove two hours to serve as a monitor in Central Florida, said she'd never seen a bear before outside a zoo. By the end of Saturday she'd seen more than 20, all dead, some of them already gutted but still bleeding.

Hunters in two regions of the state, Central Florida and the eastern Panhandle, shot so many bears on the first day of the weeklong hunt that they won't get a second day. The Panhandle hunters killed 81, which was more than double their quota of 40. The Central Florida limit was 100, and as of late Saturday the number of dead bears had hit 99.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission executive director Nick Wiley shied away from calling the hunt a success, though.

"This has not been an easy thing to do for our agency," he said.

Among the Panhandle hunters were Andrew Rapuzzi and his daughter Julie, who shot a bear in their yard. They knew when it might come by — the bear has made a habit of spending the morning in their yard.

Andrew grabbed his crossbow and shot the bear from 40 yards away, and because the family has Apache heritage, he and his daughter then performed a sacred ceremony, putting sage and tobacco in the bear's mouth "to help his spirit go to Creator," he said.

No protesters showed up to disrupt the proceedings until the sun went down. Then, at the Rock Springs Run Wildlife Management Area's hunter check-in station near Sanford, a vegan veterinarian from Orlando, Randall Cannon, switched on a large flat-screen TV on the back of his truck. It began flashing bright images of bears along with quotes from serial killer Ted Bundy, to whom he compared the hunters.

"None of these bears died peacefully," Cannon said as his message blared through the deepening shadows.

Florida's black bears were last hunted in 1994. Until 2012 they were considered an imperiled species, deserving state protection like panthers and scrub jays. Some activists tried in vain to get the federal government to add them to the national endangered species list.

Instead, three years ago the state took them off its protected list. That's when a movement began to bring back bear hunting — a movement that has proven to be unpopular with the general public, but widely supported by hunters. The wildlife commission voted this summer to proceed with the hunt, despite not knowing how many bears there are. A statewide census is supposed to be complete in 2016.

Fueling the push for the hunt was a series of incidents in which bears attacked and mauled five people — four women and, on the eve of Saturday's hunt, a 65-year-old man who was attacked near a Panhandle motel. His injuries were considered minor and wildlife officials were still trying to capture the bear as of late Saturday.

Opponents of the hunt tried to stop it with a lawsuit but lost. The group Speak Up Wekiva appealed, but a court ruling that came down at 7:37 p.m. on Friday cleared the hunt to proceed as scheduled starting just before sunup. By then 3,778 licenses had been sold.

Rock Creek Springs is a state-owned natural area thick with bears, turkey and deer that's become surrounded by suburban development. It's also just a stone's throw from where one of the bear attacks occurred.

Before 5 a.m. Saturday, trucks lined up for a quarter mile down State Road 46 as hunters waited for Rock Springs' gates to open so they could settle into their tree stands before the time when it would be legal to start shooting.

Among them sat Billy Girard, ready to take out either a deer or a bear using his muzzle-loading rifle. He bought his $100 bear hunt permit Friday at 11 p.m., just before the sales closed.

"It's the first time Florida's done it in what, 20 years? So I figured why not?" the Oviedo resident said. He was going deer hunting anyway, "so if a buck comes out, I'll shoot it, and if a bear comes out, I'll shoot that." A bear, he said, "would be a nice thing to have."

Just before 10 a.m., a pickup truck pulled in at Rock Springs Run and a team of state biologists climbed in the back to unload a dead female bear, still lactating from where it had nursed cubs recently. A biologist said the cubs, at nine months, were old enough to survive despite being orphaned.

The biologists wanted to weigh the carcass, take a hair sample for DNA testing, even pull out one its teeth to check its age. They shoved it forward and a winch hoisted it in the air as a scale registered a weight of 298 pounds. The bear's tongue lolled out of its mouth, and a gush of saliva the color of strawberry jam spilled across the tailgate.

The hunter who shot it stood at a green table in the shade answering questions for a survey, a tight smile on her face, a pink cellphone shoved into the back pocket of her jeans.

Amanda Holmes, 23, said she spotted the bear 200 yards from her tree stand, and brought it down with her Remington. She and her brother Caleb had spent weeks scouting the right place to get her quarry — one of the first, if not the first, shot dead in the state.

"I'm sure we'll find a use for everything," she said, her hand wrapped around one of the wooden rails, showing off a set of scarlet nails.

Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

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