State Biologists Back A ‘More Conservative’ Bear Hunt

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TALLAHASSEE — Florida should hold another black-bear hunt but include more restrictions on hunters, Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologists recommended Friday.

However, members of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission have four options to consider about the management of Florida black bears, with the choices ranging from a hunt similar to one held last October to delaying another hunt until 2017 or prohibiting a hunt for the next several years.

Commission staff outlined the potential steps Friday.

The staff recommendation for the commission seeks to impose greater restrictions on hunters, from where they can hunt to limiting the number of hunters who could be in the field.

“Our focus will continue to be how to balance what’s best for Florida’s growing bear population with the safety of Florida families and our visitors,” commission Executive Director Nick Wiley said in a release late Friday.

The commission, which voted 4-1 to hold the controversial bear hunt last year, will discuss the options June 22 during a meeting in the Franklin County community of Eastpoint.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Biologist Wade Brenner (left) and a volunteer unload a Florida black bear ready to be weighed at the check station located off of Forest Road 11 and CR 316 at the Ocala National Forest on Saturday. A bear must weigh a minimum of 100- pounds in order to be considered a legal kill. (Andrea Cornejo/ WUFT News)
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Biologist Wade Brenner (left) and a volunteer unload a Florida black bear ready to be weighed at the check station located off of Forest Road 11 and CR 316 at the Ocala National Forest on Saturday. A bear must weigh a minimum of 100- pounds in order to be considered a legal kill. (Andrea Cornejo/ WUFT News)

In advance of the meeting, the anti-hunt group Stop The Hunt is attempting to set up at least 30 protests in cities across Florida on June 18.

Opponents of the hunt want the state to spend more on non-lethal measures to reduce human-bear conflicts, including expanding the use of bear-proof trash containers.

The staff recommendation, which is described as “more conservative” than the 2015 hunt, would also reduce the hunt to areas where human-bear conflicts are most prevalent; prohibit hunting bears when any other bears, including cubs, are present; set additional restrictions on hunting near game-feeding stations; and require hunters to tag bears immediately.

The release from the commission said the recommendation is based on input received from the public, including during a recent series of online webinars.

Among the other options, one would follow the framework for the 2015 hunt, which was the first in more than two decades. But that could also result in a higher number of bears being targeted as the agency has increased the estimated number of bears in the state.

The 2015 hunt was scheduled for seven days but ended after two days as hunters killed 304 bears. The state agency had put a 320-bear quota on the hunt and later acknowledged it “underestimated the hunter success for the first day.”

The agency estimates there are now 4,220 bears in the state, up from 2,640 in 2002, which was when the previous statewide estimate was made.

The population growth has been called robust as the estimated count was as low as 300 to 500 in the 1970s, when black bears were put on the state’s list of threatened species. Bears were removed from the list in 2012.

A number of local governments, including Seminole, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade and Volusia counties, have voiced opposition to a repeat of the 2015 hunt.

The four options, according to the FWC, are as follows:

Option 1 – 2016 Bear Hunt with Identical Rules as 2015
This option would prescribe a bear hunt in 2016 with identical framework to the hunt held in 2015, but with updated hunt objectives.

Option 2 – More Conservative Bear Hunt, Utilizing Input Received from the Public and Stakeholders (FWC biologists’ recommendation)
Over the course of the last year and a half, FWC has used various tools and methods to answer questions and receive input from the public on the FWC comprehensive bear management program. This includes three webinars, the involvement of regional bear stakeholder groups, input received at Commission meetings, and the thousands of comments received via emails, phone calls and letters.

This limited hunt option would allow FWC to hold an even more conservative bear hunt in 2016 utilizing the data and information collected including the latest bear population science. This option also puts more restrictions on hunters who choose to participate. New restrictions would include: reducing the area open to hunting to correspond with areas of the state where human-bear conflicts are most prevalent; the prohibition of taking a bear with any other bear present, including cubs; further restrictions on hunting near game feeding stations; limiting the number of permits; increased enforcement measures requiring hunters to tag bears immediately; and limiting the number of hunters in each area of the state, or Bear Management Unit.

Option 3 – Postpone Bear Hunting in Florida
Option 3 would be to postpone any bear hunt by creating a zero-hunt objective, but the Commission could consider a 2017 bear hunt at a later date. Not holding a 2016 bear hunt will give FWC more time to work with stakeholders, local communities and the public to better develop the important role hunting plays in Florida’s comprehensive bear management program. FWC would also continue to work with local communities and the public to advance innovative ways to reduce human-bear conflicts with the understanding that a bear hunt in 2017 could be considered as an important conservation activity to control Florida’s growing bear population. This would allow time for staff and commissioners to address conflict bear population data to ensure any future hunts are focused where needed.

This year, FWC will completely implement, monitor and measure the $825,000 investment for local communities to reduce human-bear conflict. Florida is a national leader for investing on the reduction of human-bear conflicts in communities, and FWC will continue to work with local governments to keep families safe. The Commission would direct FWC officials to continue to use professional discretion to take an aggressive approach to remove additional bears in response to conflicts and critical public safety concerns.

Option 4 – No Bear hunting in Florida
Option 4 would be for the Commission to repeal bear hunt rules and not allow bear hunting in Florida in future years.

The Commission will consider all of these options, as well as the staff recommendation in its entirety for a more conservative bear hunt on June 22 at their meeting in Eastpoint, Fla. The public can provide input on all of the options at FWC’s Bear website. The FWC welcomes public input at all of our Commission meetings. To accommodate as much input as possible from those attending the upcoming Commission meeting in Eastpoint, the Chairman reserves the right to designate the amount of time given to each speaker, including time donation to other speakers. The meeting will also be streamed live on the Florida Channel.

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