Florida's growing bear population will be out of the hunting crosshairs for this year.
But a one-year pause may simply help the state build a better case for a hunt in 2017.
After hours of objections from animal-rights advocates and support from hunters, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission voted 4-3 late Wednesday against a staff recommendation to hold a hunt in October that could have been smaller —- in terms of permits and hunting grounds —- than the 2015 event in which 304 bears were killed over two days.
The commission agreed to accept a recommendation for there to be no hunt this year.
"I don't think it means hunting goes away," Commission Chairman Brian Yablonski said at the end of a daylong meeting in the rural Franklin County community of Eastpoint.
Yablonski added that the delay will allow non-lethal efforts to take hold. Those efforts include expanding the availability of bear-proof trash containers in communities with high incidents of bear-human interactions.
The state agency has about $825,000 this year —- due in part to money raised from the 2015 hunt —- to match with money from local governments for the non-lethal options.
Commissioner Ron Bergeron, who cast the lone vote against the 2015 hunt, said the one-year delay to gather more data on the bear population in Florida will help the "credibility" of the state agency.
"We went 20 years without a hunt, had one last year," added Commissioner Bo Rivard, who acknowledged that the 2015 hunt wasn't perfect. "I'm OK with hitting the pause button. Have our staff continue to work on the issue."
More than 80 people addressed the commission Wednesday, with the pro-hunt crowd outnumbered nearly 3-to-1 by people asking to postpone or prohibit future hunts.
Commissioner Aliese P. "Liesa" Priddy warned the commission that it will only hear the same arguments against a hunt next year.
"A hunt going forward in 2016 doesn't mean we're not going to stop studying the bears," Priddy said.
Opponents, including some who challenged the 2015 hunt in court and some wearing shirts that said "Bear lives matter," told commissioners they intended to work against any killing of bears for sport, which they contend will hurt tourism in Florida.
"We've had two shootings recently that have given Florida a huge black eye," said Katrina Shadix of Oviedo before the commission vote. "Do we want to add another controversial bear hunt to our image?"
Newton Cook, a member of The Future of Hunting in Florida, said those who question the state agency's scientists "are wrong" and simply seeking an excuse to call for a delay or postponement of the hunt.
"Thirty states have bear hunting," Cook said. "This is not rocket science."
But critics of the hunt spent the day pushing for the commission to approve a delay so more scientific data can be collected or to possibly issue a general prohibition on all future hunts.
"They need to stop this whole thing, do a complete assessment and then go ahead and determine if it's viable to have a hunt," said Adam Sugalski, campaign director for Stop the Florida Bear Hunt. Sugalski admitted after the meeting to being surprised by the commission's decision.
Before the event at a Franklin County school, about 15 protesters mostly from Sugalski's group were herded into an area —- taped off from the parking lot outside the school —- as they called for the hunt to be canceled or postponed for at least a year.
Chuck O'Neal, an Apopka Democrat running for the state House, said his Seminole County group Speak Up Wekiva is working on a pair of citizen-led state ballot initiatives that would require Fish and Wildlife Conservation commissioners to be elected rather than appointed by the governor and for statewide referendums to be held when hunts are planned for species that were once listed as threatened or endangered.
"The public has spent a lot of money to bring black bears back," said O'Neal, who appeared at the commission meeting.
Thomas Eason, director of the commission's habitat and species conservation division, said the state's bear population has made tremendous strides since the 1970s, when there were 300 to 500 black bears in Florida and the animals were placed on the state's list of threatened species. Bears were removed from the list in 2012.
"A lot of people still seem to feel like we're in the late '70s, and we have these very isolated, very small bear populations," Eason said. "We have moved well beyond that and we have expanding bear populations in both range and numbers. And that is a huge success story. And we don't say that lightly."
The call for the hunt came as the number of bears annually killed by vehicles has steadily increased the past quarter century. There were 243 bears killed by vehicles last year, up from 241 a year earlier. In 1990, the state recorded 33 bears killed by vehicles. In 2000, the number was 109.
Over the same time, the number of phone calls to the agency related to bears has grown from 99 in 2000 to 6,094 last year. The 2015 number marked a drop from the 6,688 calls in 2014.
Commission officials have said the decline could be due to ongoing efforts to reduce bear-human interactions, such getting more people to use bear-proof trash containers.
Critics of the hunt said the road-kill and incident numbers are due in large part to humans moving into traditional bear habitat.