The black bear population is on an upswing in Florida, wildlife officials announced Thursday. But the new count does not reflect the bears killed in October’s bear hunt.
Because the count was taken over the previous two summers, the new number, 4,350, does not include the 304 bears killed in the bear hunt on Oct. 24 and 25, said Walter McCown, a bear researcher with FWC in Gainesville.
At the time of the hunt, Florida’s first in 21 years, FWC estimated the population to be about 3,500, nearly 24 percent fewer bears than the newest population numbers.
The count also doesn’t include cubs, of which there could be as many as 2,000, McCown said.
The Florida black bear population has increased 60% since 2002, the last time an official count was taken, according to FWC.
In the central region, which includes Alachua County, the number of bears has increased by 19 percent. Numbers have climbed more than 100 percent in the north, increased by 64 percent in the south region and jumped 75 percent in the western panhandle, according to FWC.
To obtain the new count, during the summers, when bears are most active, researchers around the state placed bits of doughnut and other baked goods in 824 barbed-wire hair corrals. When a bear entered a corral, it left tufts of hair, which researchers then genetically identified.
In all, researchers collected about 15,000 hairs that were later matched to 4,350 bears, said McCown.
Chuck O’Neal, a State Senate candidate for District 11 and activist against the bear hunt, called the recent population numbers “good propaganda.”
“It’s pretty obvious that what they were trying to do is not put out an accurate number of what the bear population is today,” O’Neal said. “They’re trying to inflate those numbers by putting out what the bear population was at the end of that period which they gathered the data.”
But McCown said the issue is increased interactions in residential areas. Bears have recently been spotted in areas east of Gainesville, like Hawthorne.
“It’s not uncommon for us to be getting those calls,” he said.
But overall, McCown said the increase in bear population is a conservation success, as the population had dropped between 300 and 500 in the 1970s. He would not comment on whether FWC will hold another hunt this year, saying the commissioners make all policy decisions.
Joseph Clark, a researcher with FWC in Tennessee who worked on the current Florida count, said hunting is just one tool that can be used to control population. Depending on how hunts are implemented, populations can be stabilized or reduced.
O’Neal said there are other ways FWC could control the rapid population growth in residential areas, without hunting.
Protection of habitat is key, he said. By monitoring controlled burns and the growth of plants, like saw palmetto, that sustain natural bear habitats the population could be controlled.
Carel Lajara contributed to this report.