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Judge won't halt Florida bear hunt

Although he said the state wildlife commission could have shown better timing and science, a judge ruled late Thursday that Florida can proceed this month with its first bear hunt since 1994.

Leon County Circuit Judge George Reynolds III rejected a bid by opponents of the bear hunt for a temporary injunction halting the one-week season prior to its Oct. 24 start.

Ralf Brookes, representing a conservation group called Speak Up, Wekiva, argued that the commission had rushed into its decision to hold the hunt after four bear attacks on women in two years — even though bear experts say the hunt will do nothing to prevent future attacks.

He asked the judge to postpone the hunt until the commission's biologists complete their current review of the bear population, which will not be finished until some time next year. The last statewide bear population review occurred in 2002.

"The commission could have had some better timing," the judge agreed. "Pull your population estimate together. That's your scientific basis" for a hunt.

However, Reynolds said he was persuaded by the testimony of wildlife commission officials that they had come up with a conservative estimate of the current population — 3,500, compared to 3,000 in 2002. He said he was satisfied the state agency would make every effort to ensure that the hunters do not take more than the 320 bears that the commission approved as the official "harvest quota."

"It appears to me that the commission had a sufficient scientific basis" for proceeding with the hunt, the judge said. "Could they have had a better one? Yes."

The wildlife commission's attorney, Harold G. "Bud" Vielhauer, contended that Brooks and the 11 environmental groups that filed "friend of the court" briefs supporting that side had "failed to show irreparable harm" to the bear population if the hunt went on as scheduled.

"Now, the bears might argue with you on that point," the judge quipped, prompting some laughter in the Tallahassee courtroom.

Far more important, Brooks contended, is the commission's work in supplying bear-proof trash cans in suburban areas where bears hang out, and cutting back on the human harvest of palmetto berries, because they form a big part of the bears' natural diet.

Brooks asked the commission's top bear expert, Thomas Eason, why the state couldn't wait until next year when the population count is done, and see if the palmetto berry harvest changes and the bear-proof trash cans do the job instead.

Eason said there would be nothing wrong with that. But then he mentioned the attacks and said, "We are taking every effort to make sure that doesn't happen again."

However, he said, blocking attacks is not the goal. "We want to manage the bears at a level that's appropriate for their surroundings," he said. And right now, their surroundings include Central Florida suburbs, not forests, he said.

Brooks zeroed in on whether the hunters might kill more than the 320 allowed, and if the wildlife agency would be able to stop the hunt if they did. But even if that happens, Eason said, it won't doom the population to extinction.

"These bear populations are large and resilient," he said.

The commission's decision to approve a bear hunt has drawn controversy from the start. Commissioners asked the public for comment, and drew 40,000 letters, emails and calls, of which 75 percent opposed the hunt. But they voted to go ahead with it anyway, and Gov. Rick Scott, who appoints the wildlife commissioners, said he would not interfere.

So far the commission has sold 2,360 licenses to hunt bears, a major payday for the agency since each license for a Florida resident costs $100 and the ones for out-of-state hunters, such as rocker Ted Nugent, cost $300.

But most of those hunters will never even see a bear, according to the testimony of Diane Eggeman, who heads up the wildlife commission's hunting division.

"Let's say we have 3,000 hunters participate," he told the judge. Based on her calculations of the hunting success rate, "only 207 bears would be taken.

"The probability of a hunter encountering a bear is highly unlikely," she said. "Bears are a shy animal."

Brooks and his clients could not be reached after the hearing to comment on what their next move might be, if any.

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

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