SARASOTA — Though wildlife commissioners had already signaled that bear hunting was returning to Florida, hundreds of people showed up Wednesday to get their final say before the board flouted public opinion and approved the measure.
They arrived at the Sarasota Hyatt Regency in dress clothes, camouflage ball caps and weatherproof fishing shirts. One wore a fuzzy bear costume. Sometimes they were civil, ticking off statistics as to why hunting black bears is a good or bad policy. At other points they were biting, heckling a 15-year-old girl and tossing around words like blood, carnage and corruption.
"Some good ol' boys already had their minds made up," said Avery Cobbs, 48, of Orlando, who wore the bear suit. "Unfortunately it didn't matter, and it's a huge loss."
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission executive director Nick Wiley said after the 5-1 vote that he thought the commission did the right thing. The approval means Florida is set to have a one-week, daytime bear-hunting season in four regions in October for the first time since 1994.
"It was a really tough decision for the commissioners," Wiley said. "I believe they listened to a lot of passionate input."
About 80 people spoke at the meeting during a comment period that stretched over six hours. One woman said she wore red to symbolize the blood of bears, another taped a sheet of paper to her chest with only two words: "Dead Bear."
"This public wants you to keep your grubby mitts and guns off of black bears," said Carol Abarbanell, 68, of Englewood.
FWC commissioners voted unanimously in April to tentatively support the bear-hunting proposal, even after they solicited public input and received 40,000 responses, about 75 percent of which opposed the plan.
The seeming apathy for public sentiment was a common gripe for speakers Wednesday. "If you choose bear hunting over the will of the voters then this smarts of corruption and this smarts of the end of democracy as we know it," said Larry Heiny, 57, of Sarasota.
After the vote, Wiley said the initial response "was not a vote, not a referendum; it wasn't even a valid poll."
Speakers on Wednesday chastised commissioners for prioritizing haste over reason. The hunt is meant to curb the population of black bears in the state, but the FWC will not have a full tally of the species' numbers until next year. Instead, critics said, the commission made a knee-jerk reaction to four maulings in 2013 and 2014.
The black bear was once a darling of Florida's conservation efforts, featured on a license plate in the late 1990s. In the middle of the 20th century, the population was just 500 statewide, but by 2002 it had grown to about 3,000. Just three years ago, the bear was removed from the threatened list.
Opponents turned the vote of one commissioner with their pleas, "Alligator" Ron Bergeron, who was the lone "nay."
"I'm a hunter myself and my family has been here for 170 years, all the way back to the 1840s," he said. "But I believe that we need to evaluate, take our time a little bit here."
A handful of hunters showed up to back the supportive commissioners.
Bob Andreu, president of the Southwest Florida Outdoorsman's Association, said, "The Florida bear has no known natural enemy other than the automobile, the front bumper." Hunting will provide necessary species management, he said.
Tallahassee teenager Hanna Hodges traveled to Sarasota to issue her support and was booed as she walked back to her seat after speaking. One woman muttered "killers" as Hodges spoke.
Outside the meeting, Hodges, 15, said: "It hurts, but I was prepared."
Most hunt opponents argued that better trash management would be a more effective way of reducing human-bear interactions. When people leave Dumpsters and garbage cans open, they said, it creates an easy target for hungry bears.
Others dialed up emotion, saying it is immoral to kill bears and that human development is the real problem, fueling expansion into the bears' natural habitat.
Frank Jackalone, senior organizing officer for the Sierra Club in Florida, said his group will look for political and legal ways to fight the decision.
Tensions were especially high between opponents and commission chairman Richard Corbett, who in April told a reporter that "those people don't know what they're talking about."
When Corbett fiddled with his phone during the meeting, a woman stood up and shouted: "Commissioners, can you turn off your cellphones, please!"
Before the vote, Corbett, a Tampa mall developer, said bear hunting was a particularly thorny issue. "We should all recognize that this has been a very difficult subject and it's been painful in many ways," he said.
Each permitted hunter will be able to take one bear per year under the new rules. The FWC hopes the hunt will kill more than 200 bears, according to the agency's "harvest objectives."
State officials already kill a number of nuisance bears, and opponents say hunting will target the wrong animals, which usually stay deep in the woods.
Laurie MacDonald, Florida director for the Defenders of Wildlife, balked at commissioners' assertions that they were just managing the environment.
"It's not a balance," she said. "It's the dominance of one species over another."
Times staff writer Craig Pittman contributed to this report. Contact Zachary T. Sampson at [email protected] or (727) 893-8804.