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Booming license sales show Florida may have more bear hunters than bears

A female bear runs near a pond in the Ocala National Forest after being released from a trap. [Times (2010)]
A female bear runs near a pond in the Ocala National Forest after being released from a trap. [Times (2010)]
Published Aug. 7, 2015

The licenses for Florida's first bear hunt in 21 years are so popular that the state may wind up with more bear hunters than bears.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which approved the controversial hunt, set no limit on the number of licenses that could be sold. Since the licenses went on sale Monday, the agency has sold 1,340 of them. The sale is supposed to continue through Oct. 23, right before the one-week hunt begins.

The state's official estimate of Florida's bear population is 3,000.

All hunters will be limited to one bear per person. The agency has limited the total number of bears allowed to be killed during the one-week season to about 320.

That means quite a few hunters spending $100 or more for licenses are likely to go home empty-handed. But wildlife officials say they expected that.

"Success rates for bear hunting are low, especially with the restrictions in Florida such as not using dogs or bait," said Diane Eggeman of the wildlife commission's hunting and game management division. "Based on information from other states, without the use of dogs or bait, the percentage of successful hunters ranges from 1 to 12 percent per season, with daily success rates much lower."

The attorney representing a conservation group trying to stop the hunt questioned that assertion. With so many licenses being sold, Christopher Byrd said, "is this a fundraising opportunity or a plan based on science?"

Opponents of the hunt argued that the commissioners should have postponed their June vote until a census of the bear population is completed by the agency's biologists next year. But only one commissioner voted to delay the hunt. None of them opposed it.

Among those who have bought a bear hunting license so far are state wildlife commissioner Liesa Priddy, an Immokalee rancher who voted with the majority of her colleagues to approve the hunt.

The list of bear hunters also includes Associated Industries lobbyist Brewster Bevis, who was part of a group of movers and shakers who went on secret hunting trips at King Ranch in Texas with Florida's most powerful politicians, including Gov. Rick Scott, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, and Florida House Speaker Steve Crisafulli.

Hunters who bought licenses offered varied explanations for their interest.

James Conant of St. Petersburg, for instance, said he wants to control a bear population that he believes is seriously out of control. "I'm not a vicious killer of animals," he said.

"I've always wanted to hunt" a bear, said Terry Tuten of Wesley Chapel, who said he'd hunted everything else Florida allows. "I've seen plenty of bears. I've seen the destruction they do to people's homes and barns and dumpsters."

He hopes to use his .30-06 rifle to take down one of the big predators.

Davison Yee of Tampa, however, wants to shoot a bear using a percussion cap muzzle loader like the early settlers.

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"I have always been a history buff," he explained. He added he had another interest: "I've always heard about bear meat and I've always wanted to try it."

More than 1,000 of the hunters are male, and fewer than 100 are female. Many of the women who bought licenses share an address with a man who bought one. One father, Jason Holley of Plant City, bought bear hunting licenses for his 9-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son.

The hunt was spurred by a series of four bear attacks on women, three in the suburbs of Central Florida and one in a rural part of the Panhandle. A review of licenses sold so far indicate none of the victims have bought one.

The fall hunt may be postponed or halted entirely by a lawsuit filed by Speak Up Wekiva, a Seminole County conservation group. The suit contends the hunt violates Amendment 5, a 1998 amendment that created the wildlife commission and outlined that its mission was to "conduct management, preservation and conservation decision-making based upon sound science."

The suit says the commission failed to show scientific evidence that hunting will reduce interactions with humans, or that the bear population can sustain the hunt. The first thing Speak Up Wekiva is seeking is a temporary injunction to halt the hunt, Byrd said.

Nearly all of the people who have bought bear hunting licenses so far are Florida residents, who were charged $100. Only 20 were out-of-state residents willing to fork over the higher price of $300. One of those was Detroit rocker Ted Nugent, now a darling for conservatives and gun rights groups. He was enthusiastic about the hunt.

"The reason there hasn't been a bear season until now — even after more than 6,000 nuisance complaints — the reason we've waited so long is because of the scourge of political correctness dispensed by the idiots who claim the defenseless animals need protecting," Nugent told the Orlando Sentinel. "Helloooo! It's a [expletive] bear!"

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

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