The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) declared open season on our Florida black bears this past October after a 21-year hiatus. Bears were removed from the list of threatened species in 2012 even though a census of the population of bears in our state had not been completed since 2002. The rationale for the hunt according to the FWC was to control the population. That seems very suspicious considering we don’t know how many bears there are, but estimates seem to hover around 3,000 bears throughout the entire state. The FWC’s goal was to decrease the population by 20% in total, including other causes of death.
Despite petitions, phone calls, letters, and emails to Governor Rick Scott and the FWC, the hunt could not be stopped. The majority of people in this state (approximately 75%) who cared to voice their opinion about the hunt were against it. As a concerned citizen, environmentalist, and animal lover, I was called into action to help monitor the bear hunt along with about 99 other people, to ensure that quotas were not exceeded. The hunt was supposed to last up to a week if quotas were not met, but the first two days which fell on a weekend were guaranteed hunting days regardless of the numbers killed. Our job was to be present at hunter check stations and count dead bears as they came in. Our aim was to stop the hunt once quotas were met. It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do.
With an estimated 18% of their former habitat remaining due to the soaring population of humans, there aren’t too many places for the bears to go anymore. About 150 bears were killed on Florida roads last year and over 89 were killed for being “nuisance” bears. What that means is they were attracted to garbage, pet food, dirty barbecue grills, bird seed and the like left out by humans. Bears are opportunists and like most of us, they will go for the easy meal which puts them in danger of being deemed “nuisance” bears.
A bill has been introduced by state Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, called the Florida Black Bear Habitat Restoration Act (SB 1096). The House version, HB 1055, was introduced by Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach. The act would help preserve the habitat of the Florida black bear and the primary sources of the bears’ diet, including the saw palmetto and acorn-producing trees. Saw palmetto harvesting on state lands in bear habitat would no longer be permitted, and neither would the destruction of acorn-producing oak trees.
Protection of the bear’s food supply coupled with the distribution of bear-resistant trash cans in bear country would drastically decrease human-bear conflicts, making it safer for bear and human alike. It would behoove us to urge our senators and representatives to support this bill. We don’t need any more bear hunts in Florida. What we need are sound, non-lethal solutions to keep bears in their forest homes.