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  1. Florida Politics

Florida bear hunt could happen again this October despite protests

Richard Sajko of Valrico talks about how he killed one of the two bears on the back of his pickup truck during the Florida black bear hunt in October at the Rock Springs Run Wildlife Management Area near Lake Mary. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]
Published Apr. 13, 2016

Florida wildlife commissioners are proceeding with a second bear hunt later this year, despite continued opposition to the one held last year that claimed 304 bears.

During a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission meeting Wednesday, commission chairman Brian Yablonski noted that the state's administrative code calls for holding a hunt every October.

Yablonski, a power company lobbyist first appointed to the commission in 2004 by former Gov. Jeb Bush, told his fellow commissioners to be ready to set a quota for the second hunt at their next meeting.

Yablonski "asked that we bring a range of options for further consideration at the June meeting," commission executive director Nick Wiley said.

The commissioners were not scheduled to discuss bear hunting at their meeting Wednesday. The subject was not on their agenda. Yablonski brought it up when Wiley mentioned a new population estimate by the scientists on his staff that showed there were now 4,350 adult bears statewide.

That's about 60 percent more than the population found by a similar study 14 years ago. The newer population estimate, however, was based on data gathered before last October's hunt, which claimed 36 mother bears.

Until 2011, the bears were a protected species under state law, classified as threatened. Commissioners then voted to remove it from the state's list of protected species. But last month, a coalition of scientists and environmental activists petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to put the Florida bear on the federal endangered list.

The petition noted that the bears were facing serious challenges, including a shortage of saw palmetto berries, the loss of habitat to development and the possibility of a second hunt.

"Without Endangered Species Act protection, the Florida black bear could once again find itself on the precipice of extinction," the petition said. Federal officials have not responded.

The drive to get the bears federal protection is led by the Center for Biological Diversity. The head of its Florida office, Jaclyn Lopez, said she's hopeful the commissioners will listen to the public and set a quota of zero bears for the next hunt.

Then, she said, they "could use that time to talk about getting additional bear-proof trash cans, homeowner education, and allowing more staff time to weigh-in on (development) projects in bear country."

Last year, when the commission first considered holding Florida's first bear hunt in 21 years, it invited public comment. More than 40,000 people responded. Of those, 75 percent opposed holding a hunt, but commissioners voted to go ahead with one anyway.

Commissioners took that step after a series of bear attacks that injured four women — although they acknowledged that a hunt would likely have no impact on preventing any future attacks.

At that time they also quietly approved a set of rules for the hunt that were added to the Florida Administrative Code. One of those rules is the one that Yablonski cited Wednesday.

More than 3,700 people paid for a license to hunt bears last fall. The hunt was scheduled to last a week. Wiley ended it after just two days because the hunters had quickly killed 304 bears — 36 of them lactating females — and the statewide quota was 321.

The commission's top bear expert, Thomas Eason, said then that the high number of bears killed in just two days showed that hundreds of eager hunters spent weeks scouting locations to guarantee a shot at a bear. He also credited the high number of bears killed to the fact that the last Florida bear hunt was in 1994.

"The bears haven't been hunted in 21 years, so they're relatively naive," Eason said.

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

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