As Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) gets ready to announce another bear hunt, many questions have been raised with not many satisfactory answers generated. Last year, a minimum of 655 Florida bears lost their lives at the hands of humans: 304 as a direct result of the bear hunt, 243 on roadways, and most of the others killed by FWC for being so-called “nuisance” bears.
Since 2011, when the number of bears killed on roads was 193, that number has exceeded 200 every year thereafter with a record high of 284 killed on roads in 2012. Why might this be the case? If you were to ask the FWC, they would say with the help of the media that these numbers reflect the “large and growing” Florida black bear population, that there are too many bears, and that they are spilling out into neighborhoods and roadways terrorizing and endangering any human who is hapless enough to cross their path. But can the FWC be trusted? And, given their slow population growth rate, why has the number of bears killed by automobiles escalated so much only within the last five years?
The FWC is a hunt club. Many people are incredulous to learn that the agency whose job is to preserve and protect our state’s wildlife is merely a glorified hunting organization whose Facebook page says it all: HuntFlorida. What is more, the seven FWC commissioners consist of hunters, ranchers, and developers, one of which seeks a federal permit to enable her to legally kill the critically endangered Florida panther if seen on her property. This same commissioner also purchased a bear-hunting permit. The lone dissenting vote also came from a hunter, Ron Bergeron, who was quoted as saying something to the effect that one should have all the science in place before holding a hunt of an iconic animal that hasn’t been hunted in 21 years. He was probably referring to the incomplete census data.
No doubt as a result of the public backlash that ensued surrounding the hunt, the FWC subsequently released their “Florida black bear abundance study.” With a title like that, their findings should come as no surprise. Last year before the hunt, the number of bears was estimated to be between 3,000 and 3,500 and they lived in about 18% of their historic range. Because the quota was reached and even exceeded in some Bear Management Units (BMUs) within 12 hours, FWC director Dr. Thomas Eason proclaimed there must be 5,000-6,000 bears roaming throughout Florida. Not surprisingly, the Florida black bear abundance study later estimated there to be 4,350 individuals, not counting 1,000 to 2,000 cubs. Does such a title for a scientific study not scream experimental bias and exist to mislead the public? More importantly, do you believe that the FWC, a hunting organization, should be the entity entrusted to conduct real scientific studies on bear populations?
The FWC claimed recently during one of three webinars “to discuss bear management activities,” with the public that without hunting, Florida black bears would have a population explosion and unlimited growth leading to increased vehicular accidents and human-bear conflicts, thus endangering the public. This is absurd. Without hunting, the population increased from 300-500 in 1974 to the number we have today, whatever that may be. The FWC calls it their “conservation success story,” but it was not their success at all. Hunted to the brink of extinction, their numbers increased once the persecution stopped.
When hunters stopped the killing in 1994, bear numbers rebounded. But bear populations will not grow if there is not enough food. They regulate their own population numbers. Due to a phenomenon seen in many mammals which is called embryonic diapause or delayed implantation, bears will skip breeding seasons during lean times until food becomes more plentiful. Bears already have one of the lowest reproductive rates of any animal with a population growth rate between 0-2% per year, normally breeding and producing cubs every two years. However, with embryonic diapause, females may not produce young for 3-4 years. In fact, it is estimated that a mere 12,000 Florida black bears inhabited the state prior to European settlement. If bears cannot regulate their own populations, why were there not millions?
The Florida black bear population is not a population at all. It consists of seven subpopulations which are genetically isolated due to the lack of a contiguous wildlife corridor. At least two of these subpopulations are very small with around 100 individuals or less. In fact, the relic subpopulation in the Chassahowitzka area where I live consists of perhaps 20-30 individuals. Nowhere is it more evident that habitat destruction and development have created genetically fragile populations of bears than in the Chassahowitzka/Big Bend area.
Getting back to the question above, why the sudden explosion in numbers of bears being hit by cars within the last five years? The research team with Imagine Our Florida, Inc. has unearthed some compelling evidence correlating the habitat conversions to longleaf pine with increased vehicular collisions. Since habitat conversion projects began, an increase in bear sightings has also been observed.
Studies have shown that frequently burned open pinelands are considered only secondary habitat for the Florida black bear and frequent fires that remove shrubby cover reduce habitat quality. For example, saw palmetto fruit, an extremely important food resource, is highest in palmetto stands that are at least 5 years old. Without old-growth forests and saw palmetto as food and cover, the bears will move on in search of suitable habitat. But what suitable habitat is left in a state with unrelenting human development and encroachment where habitat conversions are occurring in all three national forests as well as state forests?
Why wasn’t a multiple-use module, preserving nodes of old growth forest, including altered fire regimes, considered to help protect habitat for the Florida black bear? In other words, why was the iconic Florida black bear left out of the equation in the quest to reinstate longleaf pine stands in the state of Florida? Perhaps it was planned, or is it possible the largest mammal inhabiting Florida was overlooked in favor of the fox squirrel or the red-cockaded woodpecker, a federally endangered species? Is it coincidental then that the Florida black bear was removed from the Florida list of threatened species around this same timeframe, in 2012? Where were the bears to go, and is this related to the reinstatement of a Florida black bear hunt in 2015?
Florida black bears suffer from climate change, habitat fragmentation, genetic isolation, human encroachment onto their habitat, increasing traffic and the building of more roads leading to vehicular collisions, the harvesting and destruction of their primary food sources (saw palmetto and acorn-producing oak trees), and human violence by “euthanizing” (killing) them when they come into our neighborhoods in search of food as a result of human negligence. What is the reasoning behind adding additional pressures on the already fragile and vulnerable bear subpopulations by hunting them? Perhaps we now have the answer to that question.