A target was placed on at least 320 black bears Wednesday as the once-threatened species will be hunted across Florida next month for the first time in more than two decades.
A split Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission approved quota numbers that represent about 10 percent of the bear population in four regions of the state—there are seven regions—where the hunt will be allowed. Commission staff called the regional and overall quota numbers "conservative."
Commissioners, meeting in Fort Lauderdale, also gave support Wednesday to a position paper on the Florida panther population. Some panther advocates argued the commission's move is a step toward allowing the endangered animals to eventually be hunted like bears.
The bear hunt, approved by the commission in June and set to start Oct. 24, will last from two to seven days. While the hunt is supposed to end in each region once the preset quotas are reached, hunters are guaranteed a minimum of two days of pursuing bears.
Commissioner Robert Spottswood said he'd like to give the agency's executive director authority to close the hunt after the first day if the quotas are reached, but he failed to get support from the full commission.
"Why not manage the program so you can't exceed the objective?" Spottswood said.
Commissioner Ron Bergeron, a hunter who cast the lone vote against the hunt in June because of what he said was a need to gather more data on the number of bears, also voted against approving the quotas.
Diane Eggeman, director of the commission's Division of Hunting and Game Management, said that while the number of bears killed could exceed the quota numbers in each of the four regions, there will not be an "over-harvesting," based on examples from others states that allow bear hunts.
Opponents said the commission was mismanaging the hunt, with an unlimited hunt for the first two days, and warned of a pending bear "blood bath."
Lee Cook, a wetlands biologist, questioned assurances that there won't be over-harvesting, as the state has sold 1,948 bear hunting permits –as ofTuesday—at a cost of $100 for Floridians and $300 for non-Floridians.
"You have put us on track to go over the quota in the first two days," Cook said. "That, combined with the nuisance bear kills and the car kills, could put us right back on the endangered species list, which we all worked so hard to get them off."
Black bears were placed on the state's threatened list in 1974, when there were between 300 and 500 across Florida. At the time, hunting black bears was limited to three counties. In 1994, the hunting season was closed statewide.
This year's hunt is intended to help the state achieve a 20 percent reduction in the bear population in each region. The 20 percent figure includes the number of bears that die naturally, are hit and killed by cars and are captured and killed by wildlife officers due to conflicts.
Eggeman said permitted hunters, who will be limited to one bear each, must report kills within 12 hours, and there will be nightly updates, via text and social media, on the counts for each region.
According to the latest figures, there are an estimated 1,300 bears in the Central region, which includes the St. Johns River watershed to the Ocala National Forest, and 550 bears in the North region, which goes from Jacksonville west to Hamilton and Suwannee counties. In each region, the harvest target is 100 bears.
The bear quota is 40 in an eastern Panhandle region, which includes the northwestern Big Bend area to west of Apalachicola Bay. In a South region, which includes Broward, Collier, Hendry, Lee, Miami-Dade, Monroe, and Palm Beach counties, the quota number is 80. The South region excludes the Big Cypress National Preserve.
The issue has gained attention recently because of conflicts between bears and humans in some areas of the state. Critics of the hunt contend that people are moving into bear habitats and that the state should focus on efforts such as bear-proofing trash containers and prohibiting people from feeding bears.
Thomas Eason, director of the commission's Division of Habitat and Species, said the agency is identifying obstacles in getting more "bear resistant" trash cans in areas where bears live, including a need to push for local ordinances to ensure compliance.
"It's not rocket science. We know it works," Eason said.
The panther issue also drew heavy discussion Wednesday. Commissioners backed the new position paper, which seeks incentives for private landowners to maintain panther habitat and assistance from the Department of Transportation to install panther crossings to reduce collisions with vehicles. Also, it seeks to develop ways to respond to encounters between panthers and people or panthers and livestock.
Commissioner Charles "Chuck" Roberts called the policy "our best efforts" to sustain the panther populations.
Agency officials say they aren't seeking to allow the federally endangered species to be hunted but are seeking better management to reduce conflicts with humans.
Such assurances weren't accepted by many of speakers addressing the commission Wednesday.
"It's not what's in the paper that's wrong, it's what's missing from the paper that is wrong," said Manley Fuller of the Florida Wildlife Federation. "Not a word about habitat loss. You folks know, and your scientists know, and the Fish and Wildlife Service folks know, that the big problem for the panther is loss of habitat. It's been continuous, ongoing and it's happening now."
The policy statement also recommends the commission seek more federal assistance as the panther population in Southwest Florida has reached its "carrying capacity" and is expanding to other parts of the state.
Nearly a half-century of conservation efforts have allowed the panther population, mostly across South Florida, to grow from about 30 to around 180, according to the commission paper.
The current recovery plan calls for the panther population to reach about 240 adult cats in three areas across South Florida. Yet the panther population is being impacted by humans moving into the animal's natural habitat.
Commissioner Aliesa "Liesa" Priddy, a Collier County rancher who shared a video of a panther strolling across a field apparently unconcerned about the human occupants of a nearby vehicle, questioned if the 240 number is realistic due to development growth. She also said many people may not understand the impact of panthers on residents of rural areas.
"The people that are in the urban, suburban areas have to have some empathy for those people that are not in the urban and suburban areas," Priddy said.