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Final tally in October's bear hunt: 304, including 36 mother bears

Florida hunters killed 36 mother bears during last month's bear hunt, the first one in 21 years, state wildlife officials revealed in a new report released Thursday. They also killed more bears than the wildlife officials originally believed — 304, instead of 298.

The killing of lactating female bears — indicating they were still caring for cubs — has become the most controversial aspect of the hunt, which the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission approved despite strong public opposition. But a wildlife agency biologist said no cubs have been found dead or in need of rescuing so far.

Hunters were required to bring every bear that was killed to a check station operated by state biologists. The biologists would weigh each carcass, check its size, take a hair sample for DNA analysis and pull a tooth to check the bear's age. The biologists wrote down all this information by hand on paper "data sheets."

Their sheets, in many cases, wound up splattered with rusty splotches of blood.

The report released Thursday is based on what was listed on those smeary data sheets — for instance, the fact that the heaviest bear killed was a 547-pound male, and that hunters trekked through 26 of the state's 67 counties searching for their prey, most of which they killed on privately owned land.

The bear hunt was scheduled to last the entire last week of October, or until the hunters had killed 320 bears. But it didn't work out that way.

By the end of the first day, Oct. 24, two of the four regions where the wildlife agency allowed hunting had hit their limit, so commission executive director Nick Wiley shut down the hunting there. By the end of the second day, Oct. 25, the number of bears killed statewide had hit 298, which Wiley believed was close enough to 320 to justify ending the entire hunt.

The report released Thursday notes that the final number of bears killed actually totaled 304. Thomas Eason, the state's top bear biologist, said the number climbed after the hunt officially ended because a few hunters needed three or four days to turn in information about four of the bears they shot, and two more were killed illegally.

Wildlife officers have cited a Franklin County hunter for poaching. A Marion County hunter was warned about taking an underweight bear. There are four investigations being conducted of other possible illegal activity, according to FWC Maj. Craig Duval.

As for the lactating bears, Eason said, the bear hunt was timed so that any cubs would be big enough to have a good chance to survive on their own without their mother. But bear advocates contend the wildlife commission has doomed scores of cubs to death by allowing hunters to kill lactating females as long as the cubs weren't visible.

"From the perspective of the FWC, it was a safe, sustainable hunt," Eason told reporters during a news conference Thursday.

To Chuck O'Neal, the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit brought by Speak Up Wekiva that sought to block the hunt, it was a slaughter. He compared the bear hunt to "hunting dairy cows." Bears hadn't been hunted in so long that they did not know to avoid humans with weapons.

"It's hard to see the sport in a hunt like that," he said.

He also noted that Gov. Rick Scott, who appointed the wildlife commissioners and declined to intervene to stop the hunt, will be honored as an environmental champion by the Fish and Wildlife Foundation of Florida this weekend. The foundation gets most of its money from the sale of "Conserve Wildlife" license plates depicting a Florida black bear.

"That's the epitome of irony," he said.

More than 3,700 hunters paid to get a permit to take part in hunting an animal that until three years ago was on the state's list of imperiled species. The agency collected about $370,000 from the license sales, which Wiley, the executive director, has said he wants to use in distributing bear-proof trash cans in areas where bears have proved to be a problem.

As soon as bears were taken off the state's imperiled species list, state officials began talking about reviving the bear hunt. Fueling more recent discussions was a series of reports of bears showing up in suburban yards and pools, attacking dogs and even mauling four women and one man.

But the hunt won't help stop those attacks. Eason said the state is "not likely to see much impact in that at all" from the hunt. He said the goal was only to control the growing population of bears, although state officials don't know exactly how many bears there are.

Before the hunt they estimated the population at 3,300, but Eason said Thursday that the success of the hunt suggests it might be 5,000 or more.

Bear hunt opponents had urged the wildlife commission not to allow a hunt until biologists could say how many bears there are in Florida. The last statewide census occurred in 2002, and an effort to update those numbers won't be complete until next year.

Commissioners voted to proceed anyway, despite overwhelming public opposition. Of the 40,000 calls, letters and e-mails sent to commissioners before their vote this summer, 75 percent of them urged the commissioners to vote no on bringing back the bear hunt.

Wildlife agency officials have not decided yet on holding another hunt in 2016, but environmental advocates are hoping to make sure there's no repeat of this year's event.

Contact Craig Pittman at Follow @craigtimes.