Florida's first bear hunt in 21 years has fallen victim to its own success. Florida's hunters killed so many bears over the weekend that state wildlife officials shut down the hunt on Sunday night, ending what was envisioned as a weeklong season after only two days.
"I have signed the order to close the hunt," state wildlife commission executive director Nick Wiley said about 8:45 p.m. Sunday.
The number of bears killed statewide had reached 295, he said, and "we don't want to go another full day" and risk exceeding the 320-bear limit that the wildlife commission set for the hunt. "We'd rather err on the conservative side," he said.
Although the hunt drew strong opposition from the public, both in letters and emails to the commission and on social media, Wiley said he considered it to be a success. But he also said the commission staff had "learned a lot" and would likely change some things if there's a second bear hunt next year.
Wiley said he'd already called Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Chairman Brian Yablonski, who agreed with his decision to shut the hunt down. Wiley said the commissioners, who are appointees of Gov. Rick Scott, have all been supportive of how the hunt was handled.
The commission had set quotas for each of four areas where hunting was allowed, and Wiley shut down two of them at the end of the first day of the hunt because they exceeded their limit of dead bears. The hunters in one of those regions, the eastern Panhandle, had brought in twice as many dead bears as the limit permitted. Updated figures presented in a Sunday afternoon conference call showed the hunters killed even more bears than the official record reflected on Saturday.
In the eastern Panhandle, the new numbers show hunters killed 112 bears, or nearly three times the limit of 40 that the commission had set. The Central Florida region's limit had been 100, and hunters topped that too, bringing in 139 dead bears by midday Sunday. Both of those sections were closed to hunting as of 9 p.m. Saturday, but commission rules say hunters had up to 12 hours to bring in any bears killed before the area was closed. That's why the numbers were much higher as of Sunday.
Wiley predicted the final statewide total for all the bears killed in the two-day hunt will likely climb higher than 295 today for that same reason.
The commission's top bear expert, Thomas Eason, said the high number of bears killed in just two days showed that hundreds of eager hunters spent weeks scouting locations to guarantee a shot at a bear. He also credited the high number of bears killed to the fact that the last Florida bear hunt was in 1994.
"The bears haven't been hunted in 21 years, so they're relatively naive," Eason said.
Opponents of the hunt, including the Sierra Club and Speak Up Wekiva, called for the statewide hunt to be shut down Saturday, warning that killing too many bears would be a disaster for a population that until 2012 was on the state's imperiled species list. But Wiley only closed the areas that had exceeded their quota.
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The Sierra Club's Frank Jackalone, in a Saturday email to Wiley, contended that the over-the-limit bear killing showed that the state's "predictions that hunters would find it difficult to track and kill Florida black bears were dead wrong, leaving science trumped by sloppy guesswork."
Jackalone, in a Sunday interview before the shutdown, criticized the wildlife commission for not limiting the number of hunting permits that were sold, which he said guaranteed there would be too many hunters killing bears. He also contended that the wildlife agency's actions had "set back the recovery of the bears for years, if not decades."
Eason contended that the high number of bears killed was "not a cause for alarm." Instead, he said, the hunters' success shows that there are more bears in the woods than biologists believed. The last statewide bear population count occurred in 2002. A new statewide bear population count will be completed in midsummer of 2016, he said.
Estimates before the hunt placed the bear population at 3,300. The number of people who obtained bear-hunting licences was 3,779.
Some bear hunt opponents had urged the wildlife commission not to allow a hunt until biologists could say how many bears there are in Florida. But commissioners voted to proceed anyway, despite overwhelming public opposition. Of the 40,000 calls, letters and emails sent to commissioners before their vote this summer, 75 percent of them urged the commissioners to vote no on bringing back the bear hunt.
No hunters had been injured or killed during the hunt, according to Maj. Craig Duval of the wildlife agency's law enforcement arm. Two hunters were caught with undersized bears, one of which was a cub. That hunter was charged with a criminal hunting violation, he said. Duval also said his agency has opened several more investigations of possible hunting violations but said he could not give details until the investigations are completed.
Eason could not estimate how many of the bears killed were lactating females, indicating they were mothers with cubs. The first bear brought to the Rock Springs Run Wildlife Management Area check-in station for hunters Saturday morning was lactating. It was killed by a 23-year-old woman who shot it from 200 yards away. Hunting opponents have objected to allowing those bears to be shot, warning that they will leave orphaned cubs that are likely to die, thus making one bear death into two or three.
But Eason said his agency's research has shown that the cubs, which are born in February, are able to fend for themselves by the time they're 9 months old. Some won't make it, he conceded, but he predicted it would be in line with the number of orphaned cubs that were failing to thrive without any bear hunt.
Contact Craig Pittman at email@example.com. Follow @craigtimes.