A time to kill? How Florida went from protecting bears to hunting them.

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click to enlarge LOPSIDED ODDS: Nearly 1,800 hunters have sought permits to stalk 320 bears. - Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission
Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission
LOPSIDED ODDS: Nearly 1,800 hunters have sought permits to stalk 320 bears.

In just under two months, unless it can successfully be stopped, a hunting season for Florida black bears will open in four areas throughout the state. It will be the first hunt of its kind in more than 20 years.

The state Fish and Wildlife Commission, a panel appointed by the governor, voted nearly unanimously to approve the hunt in June. The short season has a 320-bear quota statewide, or 20 percent of the state’s black bear population minus the amount of bears that get "taken" in other ways, like auto strikes, according to current (but not necessarily accurate) estimates. But some 1,795 hunters have purchased permits, including erstwhile rock star and ultra-conservative troll Ted Nugent.

The week-long hunt is expected to take place despite loud and extensive public outrage, which critics say the commission is discounting almost to the point of ridicule.

“You have a state agency that doesn’t care what the public thinks,” said Chuck O’Neal, vice president and natural resources chair of the League of Women Voters of Florida. O’Neal is a plaintiff in a lawsuit that aims to halt the hunt before it starts, charging that the commission is shirking its constitutional mandate.

“There is almost an antipathy among some commissioners... that people who object to the hunt are people who have never been into the woods, think bears are teddy bears and are completely unscientific and irrational.”

Those in favor of the hunt say Florida black bears have reached unsustainable numbers since the state listed them as threatened in 1974 (even though limited hunts were allowed until 1994), when there were an estimated 300-500 bears, and that the population is now so high that human-bear conflicts are rising in frequency. There have been a handful of maulings that seem to coincide with new, exurban development that has further encroached on bear habitat in once-remote wooded areas of the state.

(Note: CL reached out to Florida Fish & Wildlife, but they declined a request for an interview to address specific questions we had, ostensibly due to time constraints, but a spokeswoman did call the hunt “limited” and “conservative.”)

The four areas in which the hunt will take place between Oct. 24 and Oct. 31 include the St. Johns River watershed/Ocala National Forest; an area spanning from west of Jacksonville west to Suwanee County; the eastern Panhandle; and an area in the southern part of the state that includes parts of Broward, Palm Beach, Collier an Monroe counties.

But none of the areas in which the actual shooting will take place are very close to the residential areas in which the the maulings have taken place, critics say.

“The bears that have been doing what they’re supposed to be doing, from the viewpoint of humans, those bears are the ones that are going to be shot in the woods,” O’Neal said. “So how does that impact the bears in suburbia? The alternative is to go in and start shooting bears in suburbia. And that’s a bad idea because now you have bullets flying in subdivisions and areas where kids are playing.”

He adds that it’s tough to even get a population estimate on Florida black bears, given that a recent survey only tested some 10 percent of the 8,000 hair samples it took.

Advocates for the bears say holding a hunt because Florida black bears’ numbers have gotten too high shows how backwards state government is.

“The argument that there’s a lot of black bears is really irrational,” said West Palm Beach-area State Rep. Mark Pafford, the House Democratic leader. “It’s rather ignorant that anybody would suggest that, and demonstrates that they don’t know, or care to know, anything about long-term history or modern history and man’s involvement in Florida’s environment.”

The problem, O’Neal says, is that the bears that are wandering out of nearby wooded areas because a key food source, saw palmetto berries, has been depleted over the years. The berries are popular as a dietary supplement believed to address frequent urination due to an enlarged prostate, and harvesters have been allowed to pick unlimited quantities of the berries from state forests for years — until late June, when Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam ordered the practice to stop.

O’Neal said he wants state officials to hold off on the bear hunt for at least a year to see if better access to saw palmetto berries will help them keep to the woods.

He added that there are numerous things residents in developments near wooded areas can do to discourage bears from wandering into their neighborhoods. Obviously, he said, feeding them is a bad idea. Investing in bear-proof garbage containers, as has been mandated in some subdivisions, should help.

click to enlarge WHEREVER THEY MAY ROAM: A chart showing Florida black bear habitat. - Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission
Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission
WHEREVER THEY MAY ROAM: A chart showing Florida black bear habitat.
Among other things, O’Neal’s lawsuit seeks to point out that the commission is violating the state constitution. In 1998, voters approved a constitutional amendment establishing the entity in order to protect and manage natural resources, but critics don’t think holding an unnecessary bear hunt falls within the agency’s mission.

The same year the commission was established, the state began selling specialty “Preserve Wildlife” auto license plates to “generate additional revenue necessary to conduct the programs aimed at conserving our State’s natural heritage,” which it then issues as grants to FWC.

The proposed hunt has led some conservationists to request refunds on those license plates.

Lorraine Margeson, a St. Pete resident and stalwart environmental advocate, is leading that charge. Aside from being opposed to the idea of the hunt on its face, she said she knows all to well how hunts go.

“FWC is NOT with the hunters, they are 30 miles away at a check station, NOT monitoring the situation, it’s on the honor system,” she said in an email. “I’ve done avian surveys right after a hunt in Florida where I’ve found dumped cases of beer and various extraneous animals shot because some of them get drunk and shoot at anything that moves...It’s a horrid joke.”

To Pafford, as appalling as the possibility of a bear hunt is, FWC’s all-too-willing approval of the practice is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to damaging state policies that can be traced back to a governor who only sees things in terms of monetary value.

The bulk of the commission has been appointed by Governor Scott (though two commissioners apointed by former Governor Jeb Bush remain on the commission), and most have a background in real estate, construction or utilities. The sole commissioner to vote against the hunt, Ronald Bergeron, was appointed by former Governor Charlie Crist.

“We clearly don’t have a governor who’s capable of making rational decisions, who is capable of firing somebody who’s not doing their job, according to the mission,” Pafford said. “In fact, I would submit that he’s putting people in these positions not to do the job that’s expected. [But rather] to benefit basically large corporations in the state who are basically raping the environment. And it’s horrible.”

To put a finer point on that, Scott just replaced outgoing FWC commissioner Richard Corbett, a real estate investor, with Key West real estate developer Robert Spottswood.

To stack a commission entrusted with protecting the state’s natural resources so heavily with people who benefit from industries that do the opposite, Pafford said, is disastrous.

“We have a very long history of understanding our resources, understanding conservation, and doing something about it once we’ve realized we’ve screwed it up, usually,” Pafford said. “Right now we’re just screwing things up and there’s no plan whatsoever to fix what we’re doing. We are far from the heyday that we once had been proud of and we instead are really, some of us are quite embarrassed that things have gotten so bad.”

Pafford said there’s really not much that can be done to stop the environmental damage before it’s done, aside from waiting. So what’s the solution?

“Ultimately,” he said, “it’s a new governor.” 

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