FWC to adjust sights on future bear hunts

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – State wildlife officials will take some time to review the first bear hunt in 21 years -- shut down Sunday night quicker than they expected -- to make adjustments before the next one.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officials, who acknowledged Sunday that the agency "underestimated the hunter success for the first day," said a number of scenarios from the planned week-long hunt -- cut down to two days -- will have to be factored into future planning.

Black bears hadn't been hunted in Florida for 21 years and they're relatively naive about being prey. The weather was ideal for hunting over the weekend. There was an abundance of hunters, and some went out ahead of time to scout for bears. The population of bears -- the state expects to have updated statewide projections next year -- has been growing.

"We're going to take all the information from this year, and take a look at it, and consider everything we've got, and learn as we go, and consider how to adjust the management for the future," said Diane Eggeman, commission director of hunting and game management.

The commission has been pursuing other methods of reducing human-bear conflicts for years, such as getting more communities to require bear-proof trash containers. But state officials remain adamant that the hunt is a "management tool" for the increasing bear population, estimated around 3,000 in Florida.

Opponents, who called the hunt a "disaster" for the state's recently threatened black-bear population, said the commission should limit who is allowed back in the field for future hunts and better define future targets.

Chuck O'Neal, director of the Seminole County group Speak Up Wekiva, which failed earlier this month to persuade a circuit judge to block the hunt, said the agency needs to first determine if the hunt "adversely impacted" the state's black-bear population.

"I can't see any point of this hunt being successful by any means," said O'Neal, whose group has filed suit challenging the commission's ability to approve bear hunts. "The 320 quota was supposed to be over in seven days. How can they rejoice over that? It's just one spin after another."

O'Neal said the state needs to impose a lottery system to limit the number of hunters, prohibit female bears from being killed, increase the minimum weight limit of bears that can be killed from 100 pounds to 200 pounds and prohibit anyone who killed a bear in this year's hunt from being able to get a permit for a future hunt.

"We haven't reached a bear capacity of what our forests can hold, so why hunt them now? It just doesn't make sense," said Adam Sugalski, founder of Stop the Florida Bear Hunt. "The FWC says that at 9 months of age, which is roughly the age these cubs would be at, they can potentially survive on their own. That's a big question mark, and we don't think with these bear populations hovering around 3,000, we don't think that's a justifiable act to leave it up to maybe they could survive."

A total of 3,778 bear-hunt permits were issued at a cost of $100 to Florida residents and $300 for out-of-state hunters.

Each permit allowed a hunter a single kill.

The sales brought the agency more than $376,900, which will be used to reduce human-bear conflicts.

The hunt was halted Sunday night. State officials said Monday afternoon that 298 bears were reported killed, 22 fewer than the targeted statewide quota.

"When we started this, we started with harvest objectives that were very conservative and very mindful that we are doing this for the first time in 21 years," said commission Executive Director Nick Wiley. "There are uncertainties. But we put many good buffers in place, because it was those uncertainties and we're still very confident we're within those sustainable limits."

Fish and Wildlife officials said Sunday that though the projected one-week hunt went quicker than expected, the numbers remain within the 10 percent "harvest" objective.

"From biological sustainable population perspective, none of these numbers are worrying to us," said Thomas Eason, director of the commission's Division of Habitat and Species Conservation. "We have large, resilient growing bear populations."

Most of the bears killed in the hunt were taken Saturday in the East Panhandle (112) and Central Florida (139) bear-management regions, which were both closed to hunters on Sunday.

The state divides Florida into seven bear management units. Four with the largest bear populations were opened to the hunt.

Officials had used a 2002 estimate of 600 bears living in the East Panhandle region to set a quota of 40 bears. That area includes the northwestern Big Bend area to west of Apalachicola Bay. With 112 bears reported killed as of Sunday in the East Panhandle, Eason said that's a sign that there are more bears in the woods.

Eason also noted that hunters were reported to have been scouting for bears in the East Panhandle prior to the start of the hunt.

Other areas where the hunt was allowed were the South region, which includes Broward, Collier, Hendry, Lee, Miami-Dade, Monroe, and Palm Beach counties; the Central region, which includes the St. Johns River watershed to the Ocala National Forest; and the North region, which goes from Jacksonville west to Hamilton and Suwannee counties.

As of Monday afternoon night, 22 bears were reported killed in the South region and 25 in the North region.

Four bears were checked in in the Jacksonville area Monday. At the Cary State Forest Headquarters near U.S. 301, two male bears were checked in Saturday. One weighed 219 pounds and the other weighed 172 pounds. Officials said they were field dressed, so they likely weighed more when they were alive.

Wiley noted that in the South region, Big Cypress National Preserve was closed to bear hunting and a number of large private land owners had not opened their land to hunters.

"That's a factor that I believe does figure, just availability of places to go, that figures into this," Wiley said.

Commission Division of Law Enforcement Maj. Craig Duval said officers issued two citations Saturday.

A hunter in the East Panhandle region was issued a citation for killing a cub that weighed just over 40 pounds. To prohibit the killing of cubs, the rules for the hunt required targeted bears to weigh more than 100 pounds.

Hunter Chris Beladi said that while it can be difficult to tell how heavy a bear is by sight, the FWC helped out.

"The Fish and Wildlife websites, they give you a guide to judge that, the height of the shoulders, the girth of the bear, the length, how big the ears protrude from the head. They give you tips to make the decision, but in the end that's the individual call," Beladi said.

The other citation went to a hunter in the Central region for using bait to lure a bear.

The penalties in both cases are second-degree misdemeanors if the hunter is a first-time offender.

A warning was also issued to a hunter in the Central region for killing an 88-pound bear, while investigations are underway into other cases of baiting bears.

Beladi said he could tell the bear he was eyeing for weeks was a mother, which is the reason he didn't take a bear this weekend. He said the cub was trailing the female bear by two days, and he believes the she was healthy and looking to breed again, which is why he chose to let her go.

But overall he thinks the hunt was necessary for population control and said many of the people in opposition are going too far with emails and threats.

"When you want someone to tolerate your beliefs but you refuse to tolerate what they believe in, that doesn't work," Beladi said. "It's not fair."

Several hunters were also found hunting without their permits. Duval said those hunters were "educated" on the law that requires hunters to carry their permits.

Duval said there were no reports of hunters being injured. 

Sugalski said his group is holding a vigil this weekend in Orlando for the bears that were killed. The vigil will be at 1 p.m. Sunday at Lake Eola Park.