Florida has ended its controversial black bear hunt after just two days, noting that hunters were killing the bears more quickly than expected. At least 295 bears had been shot by Monday, according to state officials, near the planned limit of 320.
"The 2015 bear hunt is officially over," the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) announced in a press release Sunday night. The state divides its black bear population into seven bear management units (BMUs), four of which issued hunting permits for the 2015 season.
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This was Florida's first legal bear hunt in 21 years, coming just three years after the Florida black bear — a long-embattled subspecies of American black bear — was removed from the endangered species list. As many as 12,000 Florida black bears once roamed across not just Florida, but also parts of Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, yet they were decimated last century by hunting and habitat loss. Their population had fallen to a few hundred by the 1970s, raising fears of extinction.
The bears have since rebounded, however, thanks to legal protection and habitat preservation. But Florida's human population has also boomed in the past century, so these resurgent bears now find themselves with much less space than their ancestors had. They're hemmed in by houses, golf courses and highways, creating tension with the humans who have repurposed their traditional habitats.
This tension is most palpable on roads, where cars and trucks are the No. 1 threat to Florida black bears, killing about 200 every year. But the resourceful omnivores also have a knack for raiding unsecured trash cans and Dumpsters across the state, occasionally even clashing with people directly. These conflicts inspired the state to reintroduce bear hunts as a way to manage the animals' population growth.
And that's where things get hairy. While there's little argument that Florida black bears are better off than they were a few decades ago, not everyone agrees about the pace of their comeback. Supporters of the hunt point out the state is now home to about 3,500 black bears, but critics dispute that estimate — and they'd rather wait until the results of a thorough bear population survey are available in 2016.
Black bears are an 'umbrella species' because saving their habitats also helps many other animals. (Photo: FWC/Flickr)
Florida wildlife officials sold 3,778 bear permits for the 2015 season, which was supposed to last a week but abruptly ended Sunday when the death toll neared 300. "FWC had mechanisms in place for daily monitoring of the harvest and season closure, so when the harvest approached the statewide objective of 320, FWC was able to stop the hunt," the agency explains in its press release about the move.
Most of the kills occurred in the Central and East Panhandle BMUs, which reported 139 and 112 bears, respectively. Despite this windfall for hunters, the FWC says the totals fall within sustainable limits and are "comparable to other states with similar hunt structures," noting that 33 other U.S. states conduct bear hunts. "The higher-than-expected harvest in the East Panhandle likely reflects a higher bear population in that unit," the agency adds. "FWC expects the 2016 survey to show populations to be significantly higher than the East Panhandle's 2002 estimate of 600 bears."
Regulated hunting alone may not push the bears back toward extinction, but critics say it's still an unnecessary tactic whose goals could be achieved in more humane ways. "Research overwhelmingly shows that hunting bears in the woods doesn't reduce problems with bears in neighborhoods," says Kate MacFall, Florida director for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), in a statement. "The state would be better off helping citizens manage trash and outdoor food sources. Unfortunately for bears, most of Florida's wildlife commissioners failed to listen to the overwhelming majority of Floridians who publicly opposed the hunt."
Earlier this year, FWC executive director Nick Wiley acknowledged that most public comments on the bear hunt "express opposition and concern," but argued that hunting may be needed to keep the animals in check. "Although there is a large amount of opposition to bear hunting, those comments do not offer any viable or effective alternatives to hunting that would help address the real challenge of keeping growing bear populations in proper balance," he writes.
As HSUS president Wayne Pacelle tells National Geographic, the main problem for Florida black bears — like many species of wildlife — is habitat loss more than hunting. "In a state that has seen such explosive human population growth, the bisection of so much habitat means that any wide-ranging apex predator is going to have difficulty making a living in that matrix of development," he says.
And aside from the debate over hunting, Wiley adds that securing outdoor food sources is still the best way to help bears and people coexist. "We agree that properly managing garbage, removing food attractants in neighborhoods and blocking bear access to food sources are the best means to minimize conflicts with bears."