State ready to take another look at bear hunt

- Florida game officials will get an update next week on the state's growing black bear population, a discussion animal-rights supporters contend is a first step toward holding a hunt later this year.

A Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission staff update that will be presented April 19 at the Florida Public Safety Institute in Havana --- northwest of Tallahassee --- doesn't include "anything specific" about holding a bear hunt this year, said Thomas Eason, director of the commission's habitat and species conservation division.

"However, with that said, at all of the previous commission meetings recently, the public has come and talked about bear hunting," Eason said Monday. "We anticipate that likely will happen again, and our commissioners can always engage on that topic if they wish to do so."

Hunting backers have argued that a hunt is one way to manage bear populations and to reduce potentially dangerous bear-human interactions.

A one-page agenda item on bear management for the meeting says, "This presentation is for informational purposes and any direction the commission may want to provide staff."

Bear hunting has been a controversial issue since the commission in 2015 allowed the first bear hunt in more than 20 years. The commission decided against holding a hunt in 2016.

Animal-rights supporters consider such hunts as trophy excursions and question the agency's bear population numbers.

"The bear population is so fragmented, and there are so many bears hit by cars, we should be conserving them and helping connect the different subpopulations with safe passages over interstates and things like that," said Kate MacFall of the Humane Society of the United States. "Floridians don't want a hunt."

Chuck O'Neal of the Seminole County group Speak Up Wekiva said that if the commission plans to start 2017 hunt discussions, it will happen at this month's meeting.

The commission meets quarterly, and directions would have to be given at the meeting in Havana for staff to outline a fall hunt --- from the days and locations to permit requirements --- that could be voted on at a July meeting in the Kissimmee area and a late September meeting in Okeechobee.

"They need to let what they're doing take effect," said O'Neal, whose group was among those that went to court to try to stop the 2015 hunt in court. "The number of nuisance calls is down. It's well known the number of bear conflicts, where there is a result of injuries, is way down. It's working. There is no reason why they should even contemplate even having a hunt if what they're doing is working."

After 304 bears were killed in two days during the 2015 hunt, the commission narrowly rejected a hunt last year. The decision was to give the agency more time to build a case for future hunts and to provide more time for non-lethal efforts to reduce human-bear conflicts to take hold.

The agency used money from the state and through fees paid for bear hunting permits in 2015 to spread $825,000 across 12 counties --- Seminole, Lake, Orange, Santa Rosa, Collier, Franklin, Gulf, Leon, Marion, Putnam, Volusia and Wakulla --- to increase the use of bear-proof trash containers.

Also, after the 2015 hunt, the agency completed a population estimate that raised the number of bears in the state from just over 3,000 to 4,350.

"A growing bear population is good to see," Eason said. "A lot of us have worked hard to recover bears in Florida. They continue to do well, and that is why we are looking at all aspects of bear management."

The staff update comes as the number of bear-related calls has fallen from 6,688 in 2014 to 6,088 in 2015 and 5,132 last year, according to the state agency.

In February, Eason advised state lawmakers that a number of factors could be involved in the reductions in calls: an abundance of natural foods that would make bears less likely to come into more-urban areas; work in 2015 and 2016 to relocate about 100 bears that were generating the most calls; and the impact of a 2015 hunt and the public reaction to the hunt.

"There's been strong reaction to the bear hunt," Eason told members of the House Agriculture & Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee. "We definitely get reports that people are not calling in when they maybe would have in the past."

Jacki Lopez, the Center for Biological Diversity's Florida director, noted that a recent Colorado Parks and Wildlife study found that an increase in bear-human conflicts was more a sign that the creatures adapted to urban expansion into their habitats rather than a growth in population.

"It supports our position that if the real reason for a hunt is to address a growing so-called problem bear population, hunting is not the correct tool to address that problem," Lopez said in an email.

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