Florida’s first black bear hunt in more than two decades ended on Oct. 25, but what hasn’t stopped are questions about whether more bears were baited than tracked.
That’s because just 48 hours into a hunt that was supposed to last seven days, 295 bears were killed. Although a quota of 320 bears was set, the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission decided too many bears were killed to continue the hunt into another day.
Some are speculating that baiting is behind that large number.
Baiting is when a person uses grain or any other feed to lure animals into areas where they are trying to hunt them, according to the FWC website. Corn and oats are common foods used to bait.
According to an FWC report, 17 violations were issued statewide by the agency during the hunt. Two were penalties for “taking bait over bear” or illegally using bait to hunt a bear.
The FWC set regulations in place that prohibited hunters from bear hunting using bait on public land. Hunters on private land were allowed to bait, but they had to do it at least a 100 yards away from a baiting station.
The practice of baiting comes with some controversy and raises mixed emotions. While some hunters believe baiting is necessary in order to hunt an animal, others see the practice as unethical because it may give the hunter an unfair advantage over the animal.
Nathan Skopp, a local sportsman who participated in this year’s hunt, said he is generally opposed to baiting because it makes hunting too easy.
“I prefer to do things the hard way,” Skopp said. “If you compare hunting on public land to the hunting shows on TV where people hunt over feeders or fenced-in property it becomes clearly obvious which is
more difficult to be successful.”
Some opponents of the hunt, such as Chuck O’Neal, president of Speak Up Wekiva, said there could have been more cases of baiting than law enforcement was able to see or cite.
O’Neal and other opponents of the hunt argued these laws would have been difficult to enforce. For example, he said it would have been difficult for officials to detect hunters baiting on their private property.
Officers proactively looked for bait and baiting stations, and set up surveillance during the hunt, said Gregory Workman, FWC spokesperson for the North Central Region of Florida.
Officials are allowed to enter private land if they know someone is hunting there, he said. Yet,
law enforcement was only able to charge someone if they caught the hunters actively using a baiting station or if they admitted to using bait. “Even though it’s their property, the wildlife isn’t theirs; it belongs to the state,” Workman said. “We are the caretakers of the wildlife, so we are going to make sure everyone is doing their due diligence and abiding by the law.”
O’Neal said there have been claims about one bear that was brought into a FWC check station that was found with corn in its teeth. He said some people assumed the hunter used bait to kill the bear.
Workman said cases like these would require more investigation and evidence in order to charge someone for the crime.
“Unless a hunter admitted to hunting right over bait or we visually saw them, it would be a difficult charge,” Workman said. “Because what if the bear did eat corn at a bait station, but the hunter shot it over a hundred yards away?”
Officers would have to look into the case, measure the area and find witnesses to prove they heard the shots. This would be just the beginning of what could become a long process, Workman said.
During this hunt, one violator of “taking bear over bait” was issued a warning, while the second violator was issued a citation. According to FWC statutes, a first violation of baiting is a noncriminal infraction with a $100 citation. However, a second violation could result in a second-degree misdemeanor charge.
The FWC is planning on issuing a comprehensive analysis of the hunt from data collected at the various check stations. This report is expected to be released in a few weeks and could include details on the total bears harvested and their weight, sex and any other notes on the individual bears.
Editor’s Note: Story was updated to reflect the correct spelling of Chuck O’Neal’s name.