Black bears are closer to being placed on the state's wildlife hunting calendar for the first time in more than 20 years.
The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission agreed Wednesday to allow hunting for black bears during one week this fall, due to a growing number of bear and human conflicts across the state. The commission made the decision after hearing more than two hours of comments for and against the proposal.
The hunt, which is planned to begin Oct. 24, will be formally set at the commission's June meeting. The hunt will last at least two days, with the timeframe shortened as quotas are reached in different regions of the state.
"Of the 41 states that have black bears, 32 of them already allow hunting in some form or fashion," said commission Vice Chairman Brian Yablonski of Tallahassee during the meeting at Florida A&M University. "And all those states have managed to do it in a way that is sustainable and that works to preserve and keep a healthy, thriving bear population."
Speakers opposed to reviving bear hunts told commissioners that the proposal won't reduce conflict between the animals and humans. Instead, opponents contend the state should consider relocating problem bears and that people need to be held more responsible for leaving out unsecured food and trash that attracts bears.
Jennifer Hobgood, a wildlife abuse campaign manager with the Humane Society of the United States, said the goal of reducing the state's bear population by about 20 percent a year is unsustainable without knowing the actual number of bears in the state.
"The FWC may cite calls to the agency as an index of public tolerance, but such a narrow assumption fails to account for Floridians' genuine support for bear protection and for non-lethal conflict mitigation programs," Hobgood said.
Florida has an estimated 2,500 black bears in four regions —- the eastern Panhandle, Northeast Florida, east-central Florida and South Florida —- where the hunts would be conducted. Each area had more than 200 bears by a 2002 estimate.
The agency is undertaking updated bear counts that should be available for two of the four regions this summer, which will allow the agency to adjust harvest numbers, said Diane Eggeman, director of the commission's Division of Hunting and Game Management.
People attending the meeting Wednesday were greeted on the Florida A&M University campus by about a dozen protesters, including one in a bear suit.
Leslie Carlile, a retired middle-school teacher and a proud "Florida cracker" from Tallahassee, said the state should consider alternatives, such as sterilization of bears, as the state's growing human population will continue to encroach into wildlife areas.
Proponents claim the hunt will help conserve the overall black bear population.
Allan Tucker, a hunter from Tallahassee, said the increase in conflicts is a "direct result of the social experiment called halting bear hunting."
"We have created a generation, or multiple generations, of welfare bears who are no longer scared of humans, but instead look at humans as a place to get food," Tucker said.
National Rifle Association Southeastern Regional Director Al Hammond said the state needs to employ all options to manage the bear population to both lower interactions with humans and reduce vehicle-bear collisions.
Hammond also suggested the state lower the hunt permit fee from $100 to $50 for Florida residents.
"We truly don't have a track record of what the harvest will be, and we do want hunter participation," Hammond said.
The permits are $300 for non-Florida residents.
There would be a one-bear-per-hunter limit, with daytime hunts prohibited within 100 yards of any game-feeding stations. Hunters would be allowed to use bows, crossbows, muzzle loading guns, rifles, pistols, revolvers and shotguns.
Commissioners said the high profile nature of the proposal has only heightened efforts to clamp down on people leaving trash and dog food unsecured in communities encroaching upon wildlife habitat.
Commissioner Liesa Priddy of Immokalee said approval of the hunt will not decrease other efforts to manage human-bear conflicts.
"I'd rather see more bears in the environment and hunting than the amount of bears we're euthanizing, because we're bringing them into the neighborhoods," added Commissioner Ron Bergeron of Fort Lauderdale. "I don't think any person should have the right to endanger their neighbor."
The proposal, which would set a "harvest objective" of about 200 black bears, is intended to reduce the risk of dangerous interactions between bears, which were removed from the state's threatened list in 2012, and the state's growing population.
The state agency claims the bear population has been steadily and rapidly growing the last 15 to 20 years.
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 bear was limited to three counties. In 1994, the hunting season was closed statewide.
Meanwhile, the state has recorded a 400 percent increase in bear-related calls over the past decade.