JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Black bears are protected in Florida, but they might be fair game again.
Hunting black bears has been outlawed in Florida for over 20 years. But wildlife officials say the increasing number of encounters between people and bears leaves them little choice but to take action.
A new proposal that could bring back black bear hunting in the state was debated hotly in Jacksonville on Wednesday.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said it has not decided whether or not bear hunting will be brought back. It was one of several bear management options discussed at a meeting in downtown Jacksonville.
Protesters said bear hunting won't fix any problems.
"To me it's the year 2015 not 1815 and we can put a rover on Mars but can't handle a bear population in our backyard," opponent Adam Sugalski said. "It seems like the first solution is to pick up a gun and go after them.
Bryan Wilson of the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida said there are other options that would be more successful and would protect the species, which was just moved off the protected species list in 2012.
"Their own studies show that bear-proof cans, bear-proof dumpsters and bear education is what prevents bear-human tragedies not hunting a few bears for a very limited period of time in some random location in Florida," Wilson said.
Several speakers supported the state opening a limited bear hunting season.
"It would be like a renewable resource like timber, for me," said Doug Moore, who owns a tree farm in Baker County. "It would be easier to fill hunt-club memberships and compete with Georgia. We could use that license revenue to help support bear management."
The FWC said all options will be brought to the table during five meetings they host each year throughout the state.
"Hunting is just one tool for managing bear populations and keeping bear populations in balance with the habitat and in balance with people and that's what we are trying to sort through today," said Nick Wiley, executive director of FWC.
Several people have been attacked by black bears in Florida in the past year. A 45-year-old woman was attacked outside of her Seminole County home last April.
In December, a 68-year-old woman was bitten while walking her dog, also in the Orlando area.
Wilson said his organization has sympathy for the people involved in bear conflicts, but he said hunting is not the solution.
"The bears they are hunting are not the ones involved in human-bear interaction," Wilson said. "The bears they are hunting will be in the Ocala National Forest. The bears interacting with humans are obviously in the neighborhood, and you aren't going to have open hunting in a cul-de-sac."
Florida's bears continue to face serious threats, including habitat loss.
The FWC acknowledged that hunting might not have an effect on the number of bear conflicts in neighborhoods.
Properly securing garbage and eliminating other attractants, such as pet food, outdoor grills and bird feeders, are the keys to reducing conflicts with bears, officials said.