1. News

No new Florida bear hunts until 2019, wildlife commission says, citing public opinion

Richard Sajko of Valrico talks about how he killed one of the two bears on the back of his pickup truck in 2015 during the first Florida Black Bear hunt in 21 years at the Rock Springs Run Wildlife Management Area near Lake Mary. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission decided to pause the hunt in 2016 and on Wednesday voted not to hold another one until 2019 at the earliest. [LUIS SANTANA  |   Times]
Richard Sajko of Valrico talks about how he killed one of the two bears on the back of his pickup truck in 2015 during the first Florida Black Bear hunt in 21 years at the Rock Springs Run Wildlife Management Area near Lake Mary. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission decided to pause the hunt in 2016 and on Wednesday voted not to hold another one until 2019 at the earliest. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]
Published Apr. 20, 2017

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 Follow @craigtimes.


  1. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is seeking for information about a man accused of killing a duck at a Town 'N Country apartment complex in Tampa. Anyone with information about this incident is asked to call Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-3922. [Bay News 9]
    He used bread to lure the bird in before killing it. A complaint was filed with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
  2. Visitors head to Florida's Old Capitol building on Tuesday, the first day of the annual session. The same day, the advocacy group Equality Florida denounced four bills filed by Republican lawmakers, calling them “the most overtly anti-LGBTQ agenda from the Florida legislature in recent memory.” [SCOTT KEELER  |  Tampa Bay Times]
    Most of the bills try to eliminate local ordinances, and Republicans say they’ve been unfairly labeled.
  3. Check for the latest breaking news and updates. [Times]
    A man university police believe was target shooting near campus was not located, the university said.
  4. A beer is pictured in the outdoor games area of Park & Rec on Wednesday, May 22, 2019 in St. Petersburg. [LUIS SANTANA  |  Tampa Bay Times]
    The Towers of Channelside condo association has filed a lawsuit against the bar, as residents complain about noise.
  5. People waited overnight to be the first customers at the new Jollibee Pinellas Park location. It opened Friday. [SCOTT KEELER  |  TAMPA BAY TIMES]
    Long lines, happy dances, hot Chickenjoy. Pinellas Park scores the chain’s latest restaurant.
  6. Luke Carl Neimi was arrested Thursday after Pinellas deputies said he was caught doing 145 mph on the Bayside Bridge. [Pinellas County Sheriff's Office]
    He told deputies he was just “having some fun,” according to an arrest report.
  7. Gary Hudge, 54, paid an undercover detective to kill his brother, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. [Pinellas County jail]
    Gary Hudge also offered to buy the hitman a bus ticket, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.
  8. Rocky Johnson, a member of the WWE Hall of Fame and a resident of Lutz, died Wednesday. [OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times]
    Johnson thought he had flu. He went to the doctor the day before he died.
  9. Former state senator John Legg has not ruled out a run for Pasco County schools superintendent. The district is the nation's largest to elect its chief executive.
    Short answer: Maybe.
  10. Yacht StarShip, a dining and water taxi company, has added the Lost Pearl pirate ship to its fleet just in time for Gasparilla. [Yacht StarShip]
    After years entertaining tourists in Virginia Beach, the Lost Pearl is settling into its new Tampa Bay home.