At the annual black bear festival near Central Florida's Ocala National Forest, there's a children's activity called "Come be a bear," where kids put on little black bear costumes and learn what Florida bears do in their forest homes.
But no one would want to "Come be a bear" in Florida this fall, thanks to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. On Oct. 24, more than 2,000 trophy hunters will descend on Florida's woods to kill our native Florida black bears, a rare subspecies of the American black bear. These hunters seek bear rugs and taxidermied specimens to display, just like the Minnesota trophy hunter who went to Africa and killed Cecil the lion.
Convicted poacher and rock guitarist Ted Nugent is among the 2,300 who bought a permit to shoot a black bear. The wildlife commission set a quota of 320 bears for the Oct. 24-30 hunt. Hunters on public wildlife management areas and private lands are even allowed to lure bears with bear-attracting powders and sprays.
Why did Florida open a season on bears? No one in state government has a clear answer. Officials give vague responses about managing bear populations, but they don't know how many bears are in Florida. The wildlife commission's last statewide bear count was 13 years ago, and a new tally won't be finished until 2016.
It is irresponsible to set a hunting quota without first knowing a species' total population, especially one that was on the threatened species list just three years ago. Consider: If hunters kill the state's quota of 320 bears, add that to the number killed by cars each year (about 200) and the number of "nuisance" bears killed (83 so far this year). That is 603 bears. If we wipe out more than 600 bears a year, can they survive that pressure?
Researchers say that the Florida black bear's future is by no means secure. Bears face habitat loss and death on highways. Florida's seven bear subpopulations are geographically isolated and genetically distinct from one another, a sign of future jeopardy. State officials predict that Florida will lose 2.3 million acres of bear habitat by 2060.
To justify the hunt, wildlife officials also cited a rise in complaints about bears rooting for meals in neighborhoods. The wildlife commission promoted the hunt after several high-profile incidents where people attracted bears by illegally feeding them or not securing garbage. But wildlife officials already have authority to remove these "nuisance" bears.
If Florida does see fewer "nuisance" bear complaints this year, it will be because officials are killing so many "nuisance" bears — more than twice as many as last year and 92 percent more than five years ago. State officials admit that research shows that hunting bears deep in the woods doesn't stop conflicts with bears in neighborhoods. That's because the forest bears that hunters target are not the same neighborhood "nuisance" bears. Studies prove that adopting bearproof garbage management and other strategies can solve the problem. Florida's bears don't need population control; they need garbage control.
Not only are our state officials ignoring science, they are thwarting the people's will. The wildlife commission received 40,000 calls, letters and emails, 75 percent of them against the hunt, then approved it anyway. It's clear the wildlife commission is pandering to a small group of well-connected trophy hunters.
Most Floridians rightly believe we should be conserving our bears, not killing them for no good reason. Just ask the children who pretend to be bears at the bear festival what they think of the bear hunt. They'll tell you the truth.
Kate MacFall is Florida state director for the Humane Society of the United States. She wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.