After years of mounting encounters with black bears and complaints, a ticking public policy time-bomb for Florida wildlife stewards is about to go off. Conservation specialists will recommend a one-week statewide bear hunt in the fall with a lengthy proposal when the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission meets Wednesday in Jacksonville.
The hunt will range from the Panhandle to Big Cypress and be capped at 20 percent of estimated bear populations in seven bear management areas, according to the plan prepared by the Division of Habitat and Species Conservation. Bears with cubs and bears weighing less than 100 pounds will be off-limits. Hunting can be on public and private land and permits will cost $100 ($300 for out-of-staters).
"[FWC] staff recommends erring on the side of being conservative with harvest until we get several years of experience and data,” Thomas Eason, the director of Habitat and Species Conservation, said in a 56-page proposal. “Black bear populations can sustain up to 20 percent mortality without negative effect.”
A survey in 2002 estimated 3,000 bears in Florida, roughly a third in Central Florida. A new statewide estimate is not expected until fall 2016 but evidence indicates a burst in population. Thirty-two of 41 states with black bears use hunting as a way to manage bear populations, the FWC said.
Based on statistics in the plan, a bear hunt in Central Florida would be capped at 60 after other causes for bear deaths, such as vehicles, are taken into account. Dogs to track bears and bait traps will not be allowed.
There have been 16 people injured by bears in Florida since 1976, including four in the past two years, the FWC said. More than 700 bears were killed in collisions with vehicles in the past three years, including 285 in 2012, the most on record.
“Re-establishing bear hunting would not squarely address the issue of human food-habituated bears, which is the predominant reason bears and people are having negative interaction,” Manley Fuller, president of the Florida Wildlife Federation, told the Tampa Bay Times last week.
The black bear was removed from a list of state-threatened species in August 2012. As part of the delisting process the Florida Black Bear Management Plan was adopted to guide policy for 10 years.
Florida allowed bear hunting from 1981-94 when annual hunts averaged 46 bears.
In addition to hunting, the FWC’s plan calls for broad changes in bear policy, including stricter fines for human negligence; extra bear specialists in the field; new partnerships with local governments; and increases in training for local responders and education for residents.
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