Florida’s wildlife commission voted Wednesday to move forward with a rule to allow bear hunting in response to bear attacks and other encounters in urban areas.
Florida had nearly 3,000 black bears in 2002, and they were removed from the state threatened species list in 2012.
Bear hunting was banned by the state in 1994 largely in response to complaints that it was inhumane. The state was exploring bear hunting before several bear attacks in central Florida in 2014 led legislators to ask the state to allow hunting.
“This was not an easy decision to have the courage to step forward and do something,” Commission Chairman Richard A. “Dick” Corbett said prior to the unanimous vote in Tallahassee. “And we knew it wasn’t going to be easy.”
Supporters of the commission proposal said a sustainable harvest of black bears is needed. But opponents, including some with signs and one dressed outside in a bear costume, said hunting bears in rural areas won’t reduce encounters in other suburban areas caused by the availability of garbage.
Florida is the only state with more than 600 black bears that doesn’t allow bear hunting, commission staff said in opening remarks during the meeting at Florida A&M University.
And 32 of the nation’s 41 states with black bears allow hunting, said Diane Eggeman, director of FWC’s Division of Hunting & Game Management
Bill George of Plant City, who supported the commission proposal, said the state was taking a conservative approach with its proposal.
“The fact that people think it’s not going to affect residential areas, it does,” George said after the vote. “These are bears that are breeding and moving out from those areas. And there is a lot of conflict in rural areas as well.”
But Lauren Bevan, southern regional director of the Humane Society of the United States, said she was appalled by the vote and said the commission wasn’t listening to the public.
“We’re spending so much time talking about hunting and setting up hunting seasons but they’re really not doing a whole lot on the trash issues,” Beavan said. “They have used that (conflicts) as an excuse to open up bear hunting, which they didn’t want to stop 20 years ago.”
Wildlife officials proposed a one-week hunting season in late October in four areas of the state excluding central Florida, the southern Big Bend and the western Panhandle.
Dogs and baiting could not be used. Only one bear could be killed per person and it must weigh at least 100 pounds.
The agency has set a goal reducing the bear population by 20 percent in areas where hunting is allowed. The goal is to kill 275 bears but there is no fixed quota, wildlife officials said.
Commissioner Brian Yablonski said the effort of hunters have helped restore various wildlife species in recent decades. And he said the discussion about hunting has helped focus on issues involving bear conflicts.
“This conversation about hunting really is bringing a lot more awareness to the waste management issue, more than it has ever received,” Yablonski said.
Commissioner Ron Bergeron said he would rather see more bears killed through hunting rather than having them euthanized because of conflicts with people.
“We’re bringing bears into the neighborhoods,” Bergeron said. “And I don’t think any person should have the right to endanger their neighbor.”
“I think all of the stakeholders need work with us and we need to work with the legislation to make that happen,” he said, “and we’ll have bears for years to come.
A final vote on the proposal will be scheduled for the June 23-25 commission meeting in Sarasota.
Bruce Ritchie (@bruceritchie) covers environment, energy and growth management in Tallahassee.