Almost two years after Florida allowed its first bear hunt in a generation, the controversial topic is back on the agenda of wildlife managers. This time, thankfully, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission staff is not recommending holding another bear hunt, and commissioners should follow that lead when they consider the issue Wednesday. After the 2015 hunt resulted in the senseless killing of more than 300 Florida black bears despite enormous public opposition and questionable science, there is no more reason now than there was then to allow open season on these animals.
As recently as 2012, bears were listed as an imperiled species in Florida. But as attacks and other unwelcome contact with humans steadily rose, the focus of the threat shifted. When a hunt was proposed in 2015, officials suggested it as a way to cut down on car crashes and nuisance bears bothering homeowners and damaging property. That never made sense, since the hunt was to take place deep in the woods, not on the edges of new suburbs that are pushing ever closer to bear habitat.
Public officials across the state passed resolutions opposing a hunt and scientists warned of threats to the bear population, whose actual numbers were not known. Hundreds of residents turned out at Fish and Wildlife hearings imploring the state to halt the plan. None of it mattered. The commission charged ahead and approved a weeklong hunt for October 2015. Depending on your point of view, the hunt was either a travesty or a huge success. So many bears were killed so quickly that officials shut it down after just two days. Among the take were 36 lactating females, meaning scores of cubs were left orphaned. The whole spectacle was a disgrace from which the state got a welcome reprieve in 2016 when the commission voted unexpectedly not to hold another hunt.
Also last year, a state count brought encouraging news: In 14 years, the adult Florida black bear population grew by 60 percent to 4,350, in addition to an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 cubs wandering the woods, state bear experts said. That was the result of a focused effort to help add to the bears' numbers. About 40 years ago, Florida had about 300 bears left. The state banned hunting in all but three counties in 1974, then banned it statewide in 1994. By 2002, state biologists estimated the population at about 3,000. The hunting ban and other efforts at protection worked.
The Florida black bear's comeback is a wildlife management victory that should be celebrated, not perverted by another unjustified hunt.
Meanwhile, as the bear count has grown, so have the threats. More people are moving to Florida all the time, spurring more development that continues to encroach on bear habitat. Shortsighted decisions now could send the bear population right back to perilous levels. Concerns about the animals' contact with people should be addressed in other ways, namely through habitat protection but also sensible precautions like bear-proof lids on garbage cans. Those and other solutions should be the focus this week when the state wildlife commission meets in Tallahassee.