The 2,500 people who got permits to hunt bears in Florida are set to start killing off Florida’s only bear species this Saturday. Why? Because the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said they could.
The Florida Black Bear was on the list of endangered species up until 2012.
Now bear supporters across the state are rallying to save the species from what they describe as an unnecessary hunt. A local group will meet at the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute located at 100 Eighth Ave. SE in St. Pete from 11:30 until 12:30 p.m.
Organizers are asking bear-lovers to come dressed in bear costumes or wearing bear masks and they plan to dole out “generous bear hugs.”
The FWC approved a bear hunt in June despite receiving more than 40,000 comments against the idea. More than 75 percent of all comments were opposing the hunt.
While 2,500 permits were issued to hunters across the state, only 320 bears are allowed to be killed. However, opponents of the hunt worry there isn’t oversight to ensure that limit is honored.
There are also questions about whether or not the Florida Black Bear population has rebounded enough to allow hunting. The most recent estimate puts the population at around 3,500, but there hasn’t been a survey of the bear population since 2002.
Another will be out next year, but commissioners declined pleas from bear supporters to hold off on a vote until that data becomes available.
Commissioners justified the vote because of an uptick in bear interactions with humans. There are several problems with that. First, state law already allows people to shoot and kill bears that are considered a nuisance. Second, the reason bears are infringing on developed land where human interactions could occur is often that people have left out food or trash.
A website against the hunt writes that 82 percent of the original bear habitat in Florida has been cleared to make way for more development. They argue that to keep bears out of human-occupied areas that were once bear habitat, there are more humane ways. Those include bear-proof trash cans, relocation and even sterilization.
But those humane recommendations fell on deaf ears.
Timothy Martin, a local activist with the Sierra Club and one of the rally organizers, suspects the move by the FWC was calculated and predetermined.
“The Rick Scott-appointed FWC board that made the decision to reopen the hunt is the last group of people that should make decisions about our bears,” Martin said. “It’s amazing that a mall developer, a road developer, a power company executive, a rancher with a grudge against panthers and bears, to name just a few, have this power. The people who care most about our wildlife have been shut out of the process in favor of commercial interests.”
And there may be something to his claim. Of the five members who voted in favor of the hunt, three of them are land developers. Those include Charles Roberts III, president of Roberts and Roberts Inc. and Culpepper Construction Co.; Richard Corbett, a Tampa mall developer; and Richard Hanas, senior vice president for corporate administration and governmental affairs for A. Duda & Sons, a diversified land company.
Corbett abruptly resigned in August. He was replaced with yet another land developer, Robert Spottswood. Spottswood builds hotels.
Then there’s Brian Yablonski. He works for a power company and considers himself an “avid sportsman” and particularly enjoys hunting, according to his FWC bios. The other yes vote came from Bo Rivard, an attorney whose firm advertises land use and development law among its services.
Only Ronald Bergeron, another land developer, voted against the hunt.
A group of bear supporters challenged the FWC’s decision to allow a one-week hunt, but the vote was upheld. The group is appealing that decision, but it’s not likely a decision will come before the hunt begins Saturday.
The latest push to thwart the hunt includes massive email blasts. Opponents acquired email addresses for hunters who received a permit through a public records request and are providing that information and asking bear supporters to urge hunters not to go through with it.
Hunters are allowed to entice bears during the hunt, but are not allowed to use dogs.
Even though some are bombarding hunters’ email inboxes, Martin said the rally isn’t necessarily about them.
“It’s against the corruption of the organization that regulates our environmental resources,” he said.
Disclosure: Martin is a neighbor and friend.