By KELLI KENNEDY | Associated Press
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Florida wildlife officials have approved the killing of 320 black bears next month during the state’s first bear hunting season in more than 20 years.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission voted 3-2 for a harvest plan recommended by staff during a meeting Wednesday in Fort Lauderdale.
Wildlife officials estimate the state’s bear population at about 3,000, but the animals are increasingly coming into residential areas in search of food and scaring residents and eating pets.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officials said at a meeting Wednesday that their greatest effort to reduce the bear population would center on a campaign to get residents to secure their trash cans and potentially make it a requirement for residents in areas like central Florida with high bear populations, to purchase bear resistant trash cans.
The hunt, which is slated for the last week in October, is also part of the management strategy. Florida outlawed all bear hunting in 1994. But a bear rebound, as well as an increase in the number of nuisance calls and bears killed by cars, were cited as reasons for allowing a new one-week hunt.
A crowd of roughly 200 gathered, including a woman carrying a life-sized stuffed bear, at Wednesday’s meeting to discuss the controversial hunt that has garnered significant media attention. Rocker Ted Nugent is among the more than 1,800 people who’ve purchased permits so far. But the commissioned waited until nearly 5 p.m. to take public comment.
Kate MacFall, the Florida director for the Humane Society of the United States, reiterated the group’s opposition to the hunt. She said any harvest limits could be arbitrary if trophy hunters flood Florida’s wooded areas on the first weekend of the season and exceed the limits before officials can stop the hunt. MacFall also said the key to stopping run-ins between bears and humans is controlling bears’ access to trash.
“Bears in Florida are not overpopulated, and there’s no need to control their populations through hunting,” MacFall said.
Hunters would be limited to one bear per person, and the killing of cubs or bears under 100 pounds would be prohibited, according to the commission’s guidelines, and would be required to register the bear at an FWC checkpoint within 12 hours of killing the animal.
Earlier in the day, the commission also approved a new strategy for Florida’s endangered but growing panther population, which had dwindled to less than three dozen when it was listed as an endangered species in the 1960s. The population is now estimated at 180 adult panthers, but wildlife officials warn the panthers are using all the available habitat and advise something must be done to minimize panther interactions with humans as they venture into residential areas and highways where they are increasingly being hit by cars.
The agency proposed restoring panther habitats across major portions of the Everglades.
Removing the panther from the endangered species list would likely require additional breeding population outside of South Florida and potentially into other neighboring states, the agency said in its position paper. That kind of breeding expansion will be “challenging, controversial and will take a significant amount of time and funding,” including more help from federal wildlife officials.
“Under the current recovery plan, Florida will not be able to accomplish the goals necessary to recover panther populations to a point where they reach full recovery goals …This situation places Florida in the untenable position of managing a growing panther population under the rigid provisions of the (Endangered Species Act) and a recovery plan which in current form may not be achievable,” according to the position paper.
The commission heard more than two hours of conflicting testimony from ranchers and hunters and animal rights advocates. The first group warned panthers were decimating their livestock as well as rabbits, raccoon and deer. One rancher said he regularly releases hogs to prevent the panthers from preying on his cattle. But animal rights advocates, including a 9-year-old girl, and conservationists hailed the panther as a majestic, state icon that must be protected and accused the agency of backing away from that mission.
“There’s been a lot of confusion out there about (removing the panther from the endangered species list) and certainly that is not the intent … our position is strong if not stronger,” said Commissioner Ronald Bergeron, who also suggested there must some type of compensation for the ranchers.