Florida will not hold another bear hunt until at least 2019, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission decided Wednesday.
A motion to hold a hunt this year failed on a 4-3 vote. Then the commissioners voted unanimously to ask their staff to update the agency's bear management plan, including a possible hunt, two years from now.
The votes came amid the continued uproar caused by the decision in 2015 to approve Florida's first bear hunt in 21 years after a series of bear maulings. That hunt went forward despite overwhelming public opposition and repeated questions about whether the science behind the decision was adequate.
As a result, when the commission confronted the issue of whether to hold a second hunt in 2016, similar questions about the science scuttled it on a 4-3 vote.
When the proposal for a 2017 hunt came up Wednesday, though, what counted wasn't science. It was popularity.
The agency's studies do support holding another bear hunt, commission executive director Nick Wiley told the commission at the start of the meeting in Havana, near Tallahassee. The bear population has hit about 4,000 and continues growing well throughout the state, he said.
"Bears are in the middle of an expansion that's likely to continue," the commission's top bear expert, Thomas Eason, told the commissioners. "We've had bears show up in downtown Miami. They can show up anywhere in the state."
But not enough people support another hunt, Wiley said.
An opinion poll commissioned by the agency last fall showed that, out of 1,289 people who responded, only 48 percent would support a second bear hunt, he said. And 43 percent were completely opposed to it, even though about 70 percent support hunting in general.
That 48 percent is far lower than the support in other states that have bear hunts, Wiley said, and much too low for the staff to feel comfortable recommending commissioners hold another hunt. "The science is absolutely rock solid to support a sustainable bear hunt," Wiley said. But without more public support, "we're not ready to go back into another hunting season."
Commissioner Liesa Priddy, a cattle rancher, has backed a hunt every year and even bought a bear hunting license in 2015. She made the motion to have the commission staff report back with a proposed quota for hunters to kill in each region where bears live, even if it turned out to be zero in some areas.
"If we don't approve a hunt today, then we're really throwing science out the window," she said.
But she could not persuade a majority of the commissioners to go along.
The leading opponent once again was Commissioner Ronald "Alligator Ron" Bergeron, who was the lone no vote against the 2015 hunt and led the opposition in 2016. Bergeron, a developer and rodeo champion, is an avid hunter who once got in trouble for wrestling an alligator, and always wears his cowboy garb to commission meetings.
Bergeron said he regards Florida's bears as an "iconic species" like manatees and panthers, which deserve "the highest level of protection." Overcoming that would take something extraordinary, he said.
If Florida's bears had hit their carrying capacity in the wild and were going to starve, then he would support a hunt, he said. But that's apparently not happening, he said.
Bergeron was joined by other commissioners who said they feared proceeding with an unpopular hunt could hurt the image of hunting in general.
That position was not popular with the large number of orange-shirted hunters who showed up for the commission meeting. More than 80 people had signed up to speak, some from as far away as Miami-Dade County.
The first one up was Newton Cook of United Waterfowlers of Florida, who blasted the idea of making a decision based on what he called "ignorant culture."
"Do you have a clue of what's going on in this state?" Cook asked. "And yet — culture! And politics!"
Another, hunter and beekeeper Rusty McKeithen of Crawfordville, warned that he'd seen a bear's footprint near his daughter's bus stop.
"We take care of our problems, if y'all can't," he warned. "I will not tolerate that bear if he comes back."
But other speakers — including some hunters and National Rifle Association members — said they oppose a "trophy hunt" for bears, and contended it's the wrong way to solve conflicts between bears and the people who have built homes in their habitat.
Several hunters said they blamed the commission for the lack of public acceptance of a bear hunt. The state collected hundreds of thousands of dollars from people who bought hunting licenses for the first hunt and spent most of it helping Central Florida communities obtain and install bear-proof trash cans.
Instead of doing that, the hunters said, the state should have spent that money on public education about how the state is managing the bear population.
Florida's 2015 hunt attracted more hunters than there were bears to shoot. The hunt was scheduled to last a week, but wildlife officials ended it abruptly after just two days. Hunters had killed 304 of the 321 bears allowed, and wildlife officials feared they might exceed the quota.
The hunt's success generated even further controversy because hunters killed 36 lactating females. Opponents of the hunt said that meant they had left orphaned cubs that would die too. Wildlife commission biologists said the cubs would be old enough to survive.
Contact Craig Pittman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @craigtimes.