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Despite controversy, Florida wildlife officials recommend second bear hunt

The first hunt, in October, was scheduled to last a week, but hunters killed 304 bears in just two days. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]

The first hunt, in October, was scheduled to last a week, but hunters killed 304 bears in just two days. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]

Biologists for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission are recommending their bosses approve a second bear hunt, but one that is more limited in scope than what took place last fall.

The commission meets June 22 in Apalachicola, where its agenda includes a discussion of whether to hold a second hunt at all. The seven board members could end the hunt entirely or pause it for a year. Their staff is recommending neither, choosing a revised hunt instead.

"The staff recommendation is to continue to use hunting to slow the growth of bear populations," said Diane Eggeman, director of the hunting division, in a memo made public just before 5 p.m. Friday. "The new hunt format … would be modified to increase precision and accountability."

Representatives with environmental and animal welfare groups said they would much rather end the hunt completely.

"People don't want it, it's not appropriate and it's not necessary," said Kate MacFall, Florida state director of the Humane Society of the United States.

"The FWC knows that hunts do nothing to decrease human-bear conflicts," said Jacki Lopez of the Center for Biological Diversity. "They have had that science for over a year. It's bizarre that we're even still talking about this."

More than 3,700 hunters paid to get a permit to take part in last year's hunt, which began Oct. 24. The agency collected $370,000 from selling licenses for the hunt of an animal that until 2012 was on the state's list of imperiled species. The hunt was scheduled to last a week, but hunters killed 304 bears in just two days, halting the event early. The number killed included 36 mother bears.

For the upcoming meeting, FWC biologists are offering four options for the commissioners, who are appointed by Gov. Rick Scott. Options include a repeat of last year's hunt, banning all bear hunting or taking a break until 2017 to spend more time educating the public and managing garbage cans, which can lure bears into populated areas.

The option staff members recommended calls for holding a "conservative" hunt. Limits would include:

• Forbidding hunters to kill a bear in the presence of other bears, particularly cubs.

• Reducing the area open to hunting "to correspond with areas of the state where human-bear conflicts are most prevalent."

• Reducing the number of hunters in each area where the bear hunt is allowed.

• Forbidding anyone from hunting near a game feeder, which attract bears as well as deer.

October's hunt was approved by commissioners in the face of overwhelming public opposition. Of the 40,000 people who commented on the wildlife commission's proposal for its first hunt, 75 percent were opposed to it, wildlife officials said.

Board members proceeded with it anyway, contending it was a tool to control a growing population of bears — although at that point, the commission had not updated its statewide estimate of the bear population since 2002.

One commissioner, then-chairman Richard Corbett, a Tampa mall developer, said he and his colleagues ignored the public's wishes because "those people don't know what they're talking about. Most of those people have never been in the woods. They think we're talking about teddy bears: 'Oh Lord, don't hurt my little teddy bear!' Well, these bears are dangerous."

Corbett subsequently resigned.

The commission approved the hunt after a series of four bear attacks on women, three of them in Central Florida and one in the Panhandle. However, the commission staff acknowledged that scientific studies indicated a hunt would not curb future attacks.

"From the perspective of the FWC, it was a safe, sustainable hunt," the state's top bear biologist, Thomas Eason, said at the time.

Others disagreed. A trio of bear biologists sent the state a nine-page letter that urged the creation of bear sanctuaries instead of holding another hunt.

Hillsborough and Pinellas counties are among the local governments across the state that have passed resolutions opposing a second hunt. Meanwhile, a coalition of environmental and civic groups has petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to offer Endangered Species Act protection to the Florida black bear as a way to block further hunting.

Supporting a second hunt: National Rifle Association lobbyist Marion Hammer.

"Bears continue to terrorize homeowners and prevent families from allowing children to play outside in some areas," Hammer said in a May 31 letter urging NRA members to contact wildlife commissioners to support another hunt. "Continuing a liberal bear hunting season will help bring the bear population under control and help restore safety to families in areas where bears are prolific."

The commission updated its state bear population estimate to 4,350, although that number was calculated based on data gathered before the hunt.

Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

The FWC wants Floridians to visit MyFWC.com/bear to learn more about each of the proposed options and provide input and feedback.

Despite controversy, Florida wildlife officials recommend second bear hunt 06/10/16 [Last modified: Monday, June 13, 2016 3:42pm]
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