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Final tally in Florida black bear hunt reaches 298

During Florida's abbreviated bear hunt this weekend, hunters killed 298 bears in two days, according to figures released Monday afternoon by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

The hunt, the first to take place in Florida in 21 years, was supposed to last a week. But commission executive director Nick Wiley stopped hunting in two regions of the state Saturday night because the number of bears killed had topped their quota.

He shut down the remainder of the hunt late Sunday when the number of dead bears hit 295. The state set a limit of 320 bears.

Wiley anticipated a higher final number because the 3,778 licensed hunters had until midday Monday to register at a state check-in station the bears they had killed on Sunday. Hunters later brought in three more dead bears.

Wildlife commission chairman Brian Yablonski, a utility lobbyist first appointed to the commission by former Gov. Jeb Bush, said he thought the hunt went smoothly.

"We stayed within the statewide objective," he said. He praised hunters for staying safe and generally adhering to game laws.

"Hunters, they partake in this with reverence and humility," Yablonski said.

He received hundreds of impassioned e-mails from people demanding the killing be stopped. Some sent more than one e-mail about it, he said.

"Sometimes they pushed the button three times or five times," Yablonski said.

Wiley said Sunday that social media had gone "crazy" on the bear hunt as well, with viral posts on Twitter and Facebook. Florida's hunt drew attention from the New York Times, the BBC and the Onion, among others.

Gov. Rick Scott, who received about 1,000 calls and e-mails opposing the hunt before it began, did not publicly question the hunt. His appointees on the wildlife commission, he told reporters Monday, were supposed to keep Floridians safe and also protect wildlife.

"They went through this process, and they think they made a good decision," Scott said.

Before Wiley took action late Saturday, hunters killed far more bears in the eastern Panhandle and in Central Florida than the state's quota allowed. The Panhandle hunters killed nearly triple the limit.

To wildlife commission officials, that high death toll was proof there were more bears than anyone expected. To hunt opponents, however, it meant something else.

"It's more proof if you send thousands of people into the woods they're going to find a lot of animals that aren't used to being hunted," said Laura Bevan of the Humane Society of the United States, who likened the hunt to shooting fish in a barrel.

The bear hunt was controversial from the beginning, with the commissioners voting to proceed with it despite public opposition. Of the 40,000 people who responded to the commission's request to comment on the proposed hunt, 75 percent said they wanted no bear hunt.

Fueling the controversy was the fact that the bears were on the state's imperiled species list until 2012. Since 2013, though, bears have attacked five people, one on the eve of the hunt.

A lawsuit remains pending, challenging whether the commission will hold a second one next year.

Times reporters Steve Bousquet and Michael Auslen contributed to this report. Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

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