Gov. Rick Scott will not use executive authority to block the state's first bear-hunting season in more than two decades, despite pleas from animal-rights groups.
While anti-hunt groups have been collecting petitions and planning protests across the state on the eve of next month's hunt, the governor's office said Scott has left the issue up to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which has already voted to proceed.
"It is for FWC to decide what is best for Florida's growing bear population," Scott spokesman John Tupps said in an email. "Gov. Scott trusts them to make the right decision to keep families safe."
For some hunt opponents, the reply from the governor's office was not a surprise, but it further limits their options.
Laura Bevan, southern regional director for the Humane Society of the United States, said her group has yet to decide if it will join a lawsuit filed in July in Leon County circuit court by the Seminole County-based environmental group Speak Up Wekiva.
That lawsuit challenges the constitutionality of the commission-approved hunt and claims there is no evidence that hunting bears in remote wildlife-management areas will reduce the animals' conflicts with humans in suburbia.
"There really does not appear to be any other action that can be taken before the hunt takes place," Bevan said.
Adam Sugalski, campaign director for Stop The Florida Bear Hunt, said his group is coordinating plans to serve as "watchdogs" to ensure hunters follow rules about timely reporting each kill.
"With over 2,000 permits sold for 320 kills, we feel that many more bears are going to be killed and many cubs orphaned," said Sugalski, whose group has also been gathering petitions and coordinating anti-hunt protests that will be held Oct. 23 in Jacksonville, Orlando, Tallahassee, Sarasota, Tampa, St. Augustine, Fort Myers, West Palm Beach, St. Petersburg, Gainesville, Miami, Jupiter and Melbourne.
The bear hunt, set to start Oct. 24, has a goal of 320 bears killed. The hunt will last from two to seven days in the four bear-management regions — the state is divided into seven regions — where the hunt will be allowed. The length of the hunt in each region will depend on the numbers of bears killed.
The hunt is expected to help reduce the bear population by about 10 percent.
The target is 100 bears in both the Central region, which includes the St. Johns River watershed to the Ocala National Forest, and in the North region, which goes from Jacksonville west to Hamilton and Suwannee counties. The 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.
As of Monday, 2,110 bear-hunt permits had been purchased at a cost of $100 for Floridians and $300 for from out-of-state residents. All but 39 permits have been purchased by Floridians.
While permit holders can hunt in any of the four regions, more than 900 of the permits have gone to people living in the counties — Alachua, Bradford, Brevard, Clay, Flagler, Lake, Marion, Orange, Putnam, Seminole, St. Johns, Sumter, and Volusia — that make up the central bear-management district, an area with an estimated 1,300 bears.
Tammy Sapp, a Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokeswoman, said in an email that the "bear harvest will be limited through daily decisions regarding season closure, based on daily harvest totals."
"Experience in other states with a similar hunt structure indicates that hunter success is relatively low," Sapp said. "The day-to-day monitoring and ability to close the season in any BMU (bear management unit) when the harvest objective is reached will help ensure the harvest is sustainable."
Each hunter is limited to a single kill.
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.
The hunt is proceeding in part because of an increase in conflicts between bears and humans in some areas of the state. Sugalski and other 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.