The Florida Wildlife Commission (FWC) met Friday, June 22 in Sarasota to drop the hammer on Florida’s Black Bears. About 80 people spoke at the meeting during a comment period that stretched over six hours. FWC commissioners voted unanimously in April to tentatively support the bear-hunting proposal, even after they solicited public input and received 40,000 responses, about 75 percent of which opposed the plan. Tensions were especially high between opponents and commission chairman Richard Corbett, who in April told a reporter that “those people don’t know what they’re talking about.”
The seeming apathy for public sentiment was a common gripe for speakers Wednesday. “If you choose bear hunting over the will of the voters then this smarts of corruption and this smarts of the end of democracy as we know it,” said Larry Heiny, 57, of Sarasota. After the vote, one opponent of the hunt said the initial response “was not a vote, not a referendum; it wasn’t even a valid poll.” Speakers on Wednesday chastised commissioners for prioritizing haste over reason. The hunt is meant to curb the population of black bears in the state, but the FWC will not have a full tally of the species’ numbers until next year. Instead, critics said, the commission made a knee-jerk reaction to four maulings in 2013 and 2014.
The black bear was once a darling of Florida’s conservation efforts, featured on a license plate in the late 1990s. In the middle of the 20th century, the population was just 500 statewide, but by 2002 it had grown to about 3,000. When Corbett fiddled with his phone during the meeting, a woman stood up and shouted: “Commissioners, can you turn off your cell phones, please!”
Before the vote, Corbett, a Tampa mall developer, said bear hunting was a particularly thorny issue. “We should all recognize that this has been a very difficult subject and it’s been painful in many ways,” he said.
Each permitted hunter will be able to take one bear per year under the new rules. The FWC hopes the hunt will kill more than 200 bears, according to the agency’s “harvest objectives”. State officials already kill a number of nuisance bears, and opponents say hunting will target the wrong animals, which usually stay deep in the woods.
Laurie MacDonald, Florida director for the Defenders of Wildlife, balked at commissioners’ assertions that they were just managing the environment.”It’s not a balance,” she said. “It’s the dominance of one species over another.”Just three years ago, the bear was removed from the threatened list.
So, like the Gopher Tortoise and Alligator, the Florida Black Bear will be slaughtered for the wrong reason and in the wrong place. The hunts will take place in the panhandle, many miles from the majority of the Bear population and “Human/Bear Conflicts”.