Bear hunt protest draws dozens in St. Pete

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click to enlarge Bear hunt protest draws dozens in St. Pete - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
Bear hunt protest draws dozens in St. Pete

Tomorrow, nearly 3,000 people are expected to take to the woods with guns and crossbows to hunt down the Florida black bear for the first time in 20 years.

This, despite extensive outrage among thousands of Floridians, many of whom took to the street to protest the state's decision to open up the seven-day bear hunt. About a dozen or so events were held across the state, including St. Petersburg, where demonstrators held signs and wore bear masks to draw attention to the issue.

"We're just kind of trying to keep a voice for the black bears up until the very day. We're hoping, with this awareness, that we can really try to stop this in the future," said Nichole O'Neil of the group Stop the Florida Bear Hunt. "Because they're saying this is for conservation, but it's really seems like there's a bigger picture here."

Although they can't stop the hunt, she said, they hope to persuade state officials to adopt policies aimed at preventing human-bear interactions that don't involve a slaughter, including asking people who move into $500,000 houses on bear habitat to spend a couple hundred bucks, at most, on a bear-proof garbage can.

"All you can do is keep fighting for what you genuinely believe in, what your heart knows is right," O'Neil said.

Many in attendance pointed to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's lack of data on the state's current bear population, as well as a potentially haphazard approach to making sure the quota for the hunt — 320 bears — isn't exceeded.

"We are very concerned about conservation and about science. And we don't feel that the science has shown that this bear hunt needs to take place," said Alice Tenney, vice president of St. Pete Audubon.

Visibly upset, Tenney said the hunt is more about recreation than sustainability.

"The bear's there, just enjoying its life, and for no reason at all but a trophy, he could be killed," she said. "And they don't dart the bear meat. They're just there to take its head… If it's something that is wrong, it's your moral duty to fight against it. And there couldn't be anything right about taking an animal for its head."

Meanwhile, the state could be focusing on measures that reduce potentially hazardous bear-human interactions, like securing garbage so bears can't get raid it, refraining from depleting black bear diet staples like saw palmetto berries, and, of course, not developing in areas that have been black bear habitat for centuries or millennia.

The fact that the commission ignored overwhelming objections to the hunt and effective alternatives to the hunt proposed at hearings over the summer suggests conservation isn't what the commission, composed largely of ranchers, hunters and developers, is really after, said activist Kinsley McEachern.

"It's completely private interests that are driving this bear hunt. The science is not there," she said. "It's extremely frustrating, because Florida residents are in complete, direct opposition to this."

Some present at the event said they plan on driving to some of the remote areas of the state where the hunt is to take place, and try to monitor the hunt to make sure no one is taking out more bears than the state allows.

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