On October 24th and 25th, at least 298 Florida black bears were killed during the Florida Fish and Wildlife “Conservation” Commission’s (FWC) bear hunt, the first time the hunt has occurred in 21 years. Just three years ago, this unique subspecies of black bear was still on the list of threatened species with an estimated 3,000 bears in the entire state. The hunt was slated to last a full week or until the quota of 320 bears were “harvested” or “taken” (read killed).
The hunt was ceased within two Bear Management Units at the end of the first day and the quotas were exceeded within those units. Within the span of 13 hours, 112 bears were killed within the Panhandle, nearly tripling the quota of 40 bears. In the Central region where the quota was 100 bears, 139 were killed the first day. The entire hunt was called off by the end of the second day.
Before the hunt began, FWC officials claimed that bears are difficult to hunt and the success rate for hunters would be minimal. An email from the FWC stated:
“The hunt area for this time period covers up to if not over a million acres in both public and private lands. Trying to hunt for bears without bait or dogs will be a challenge. While FWC has designated that a certain portion of the bear population (20%) in the areas where the hunts occur can be taken, we don’t anticipate that hunters will be that successful. Bears will not be lining up for a massacre. They are skittish and easily frightened and will most likely run if they hear a gun shot.”
Those against the hunt knew otherwise. Approximately 2/3 of the bears were killed on private land. Many hunters exclaimed, “The bear just walked under my tree stand!” Some dead bears were found to have corn in their teeth, suggesting that they had been at feeding stations. While “baiting” was not permitted (although the use of scents was) and hunters were not allowed to shoot a bear within 100 feet of a feeding station, there was no oversight. Many hunters had their sights set for weeks or months on a particular bear they wanted dead.
Although hunters were not permitted to kill females with cubs present, at least 28 lactating females were among the casualties, leaving their cubs to fend for themselves. While the FWC claims that most cubs are at the age (8-9 months) to survive on their own, cubs normally spend up to 2 years with their mothers. It even states on their website that approximately 25-50% of all cubs die before they are one year old, and this is presumably when they still have their mothers.
Bears under 100 pounds were off limits, but at least eight cubs less than 100 pounds were also killed, and only one citation was given to a hunter for killing a 42 pound cub. If it weren’t for volunteer bear monitors working with Speak Up Wekiva, an environmental group that had unsuccessfully tried to stop the hunt, the massacre would most definitely have lasted longer and casualties would have far exceeded the 320 bear limit. Volunteer bear monitors were stationed at bear check stations to keep a tally of dead bears and reported their numbers hourly.
The following Thursday, volunteers with Speak Up Wekiva headed into the woods in search of orphaned cubs but none were found. A dead cub was found two days later by a kayaker in the Suwanee River, most likely dumped by a poacher. A bear was also struck and killed by a car at a busy intersection on a six-lane highway in Orange City on the Thursday following the hunt. Bears are apparently on the move in search of new territories, and the FWC had reported increased sightings of bears since the hunt.
While 298 bears were killed in the hunt, no one will ever know how many total casualties there really are: how many orphaned cubs, how many bears that were shot and escaped the hunter to die, for example. Hundreds of bears die on the roads every year, and many others are given a death sentence for being so-called “nuisance” bears (approximately 80 “nuisance” bears were killed within the span of 8 months this year alone). Yet, with an estimated 3,000 bears before the hunt, the FWC is planning to hold this bear hunt every year.
On Sunday, hundreds of people gathered at a memorial in Orlando to show respect for the bears that lost their lives and to send a message to Gov. Rick Scott and the FWC that this is far from over. This slaughter never should have happened in the first place and should never happen again. Many wore black and brought flowers and pictures of bears.
Meanwhile, a petition by Speak Up Wekiva is circulating to introduce a bill in the Florida legislature in 2016. The bill is called the Florida Black Bear Habitat Restoration Act—see link here https://www.change.org/p/the-florida-legislature-the-florida-black-bear-habitat-restoration-act?recruiter=16978792&utm_source=share_for_starters&utm_medium=copyLink
This bill addresses science-based solutions for human-bear encounters in a non-lethal way. There is much work to be done, but momentum is building among bear advocates who are determined to never let anything like this happen again.