Some people may not be reporting bear sightings in residential areas to protect the creatures from another statewide hunt, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission official told state lawmakers Wednesday.
The number of bear-related calls has fallen from 6,688 in 2014 to 6,088 in 2015 and 5,132 last year, according to the state agency.
The drop came as the bear population has grown from 2,000 in 2002 to more than 4,000, while Florida has become the third most-populous state in the nation, with more than 20 million residents.
Thomas Eason, director of the commission's habitat and species conservation division, told members of the House Agriculture & Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee that a number of factors could be involved in the reductions in calls: an abundance of natural foods that would make bears less likely to come into more-urban areas; work in 2015 and 2016 to relocate about 100 bears that were generating the most calls; and the impact of a 2015 hunt and the public reaction to the hunt.
"There's been strong reaction to the bear hunt," Eason said. "We definitely get reports that people are not calling in when they maybe would have in the past."
The 2015 hunt was highly controversial, but supporters have argued that hunting is one way to manage bear populations and to reduce potentially dangerous bear-human interactions. The two-day hunt, the first in the state in two decades, resulted in 304 bears being killed.
The commission, which voted against holding a bear hunt last year, has been focusing on efforts to reduce interactions between bears and humans.
Last year, the agency spread $825,000 across 12 counties to help reduce the potential for conflicts between Florida's bear and human populations by helping residents and businesses acquire bear-resistant trash containers.