Florida wildlife officials Thursday called last month's bear hunt a success, with 304 bears killed in two days and few hunters cited for violations — but critics called it a slaughter, saying most of the bears were killed on private land, where state regulations could be more easily skirted.
In a report released Thursday, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said 304 bears were killed — 16 short of the so-called "harvest objective" of 320 that was set for the state's first bear hunt in 21 years.
"We had a safe, sustainable, highly successful bear hunt," Thomas Eason, the commission's director of Habitat and Species Conservation, told reporters in a conference call.
Officials said the goal of the hunt was to control the state's growing black bear population. The hunt had been expected to last up to seven days, starting on Oct. 24, but was halted on Oct. 25, as it quickly became clear that the quota of bears to be killed would be reached sooner than predicted.
According to the report, 59 percent of the bears killed statewide were females, while 21 percent were lactating females, meaning they were caring for cubs. The state allowed hunting in four areas of the state dubbed "bear management units."
"To stabilize large and growing bear populations in four of the state's seven bear management units, bears of either sex were allowed to be taken during the hunt," the report said. "Regulations stipulated that the bear must weigh at least 100 pounds … and cubs must not be present."
The question of orphaned cubs has been one of the most controversial aspects of the hunt, but Eason said the commission hasn't seen an increase in the number of cubs it normally encounters. He also said the cubs were big enough to survive on their own.
Laura Bevan of the Humane Society of the United States, which opposed the hunt, acknowledged that cubs "have a chance to survive" without their mothers, but she said the odds are worse. And she noted that during the hunt, a cub that weighed 40 pounds had been killed.
"I have dogs bigger than that," she said.
But what most troubled Bevan was the gap between the 78 percent of bears killed on private land and the 22 percent killed on public land.
By the terms of the hunt, "baiting" the bears — luring them with food — wasn't allowed. But Bevan said that restriction is much harder to enforce on private property, and she alleged that the bears had been trained to visit feeders on private land. She pointed to the eastern Panhandle bear management unit, where 111 bears were killed on private land and three on public land.
"On private land they were just blasting away at bears that came, probably, to those feeders for God knows how long," Bevan said. "They were slaughtered. There was no skill involved."
She also said the hunt took place at the time of year when bears are preparing to hibernate and are especially intent on gathering food.
But Eason said the gap between kills on public and private land was due to greater opportunity, since there is much more private land in the bear management units. He also said private owners have more natural interest in their property.
Additionally, Eason said, the commission has a strong law enforcement presence to guard against breaking the hunt regulations.
"They are out there looking, so I wouldn't say that it is easier or harder anywhere," he said. "I would say I wouldn't recommend it to anyone out there.”
Overall, he said, hunter compliance with regulations was high.
One hunter in the eastern Panhandle region was issued a citation for killing the cub that weighed just over 40 pounds. Another citation went to a hunter in the state's Central region for using bait to lure a bear. And a hunter in the Central region got a warning for killing an 88-pound bear.
Four more investigations are underway in other cases pertaining to the hunt, said commission Maj. Craig Duval, but he said he couldn't give details.
A total of 3,778 bear-hunt permits were issued in the months leading to the hunt. They cost Florida residents $100 and out-of-state hunters $300 for the right to each kill one bear. Eason said the sales brought the agency roughly $377,000.
He also said it was too soon to tell if the state will have another bear hunt next year.
"We are taking a holistic approach," he said. "Hunting is one mortality factor of many, and we need to see where we end up for the whole year across all of that before we can make any definitive idea on whether we are definitely hunting or not hunting.”