Like the Lorax and his Truffula Tree stump, 10-year-old Megan Sorbo and her pink footstool have traveled from podium to podium across the state to speak for those who can’t – Florida’s black bears.
Before and after 304 bears were killed last fall in the state’s first bear hunt in over 20 years, the Orlando girl spoke passionately to wildlife officials, politicians and anyone who will listen about why it’s important to preserve the black bear, which was listed as a state-designated threatened species until 2012.
“The majority of Floridians don't want our bears to be killed,” she recently told Brevard County commissioners, according to Florida Today. “Bears have already lost over 80 percent of their habitat, and have done nothing to deserve being killed.”
After the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission approved a weeklong hunt in October 2015, it sold 3,776 bear-hunting permits and set a “harvest” quota of 321 bears for the entire state. After numerous protests, a lawsuit and an unsuccessful call on Gov. Rick Scott to stop it, the wildly unpopular hunt ended quickly after hunters killed more than 300 bears – including 36 lactating mothers – in the span of two days and received international attention. Since then, four counties and 13 cities have approved resolutions opposing the hunt, but despite continued public opposition, FWC commissioners, who are appointed by Scott, will consider holding a second bear hunt at their June 22 meeting in Eastpoint.
Megan knows there will likely be another bear hunt, but she and other activists say they don’t plan on going down quietly. Ever since the enchantment of the Everglades captured her imagination when she was 7, Megan says she’s been persistent in this quest to save the bears and help preserve Florida for her generation and the next.
“This is my heart and soul,” she says. “Wildlife are always going to be in peril, so I’ll never stop fighting for them.”
On the flip side of that coin, FWC officials have called the 2015 bear hunt “highly successful.”
Bear conservation efforts have helped the population grow from a mere 300 to 500 bears statewide in the 1970s to an estimated 4,350 bears before the October hunt, including 1,230 in the bear management unit for Central Florida, according to the FWC. The agency’s biologists also estimate that 2,000 cubs are born each year.
As the bears’ traditional habitats are replaced with shiny new developments, that means more bear-human contact. The FWC reports a jump in the bear-related calls they receive, from 1,143 calls in 2000 to 6,094 calls in 2015. More than half of those calls were regarding general interaction with bears and bears rifling through garbage. After four bear attacks on humans in 2013 and 2014, the FWC decided to revisit the hunting ban on the animals, though FWC executive director Nick Wiley told the Tampa Bay Times the hunt was not a solution to conflicts.
“It’s to control the bear population,” he said. “We don’t know for sure it will lessen the conflicts. We don’t have the science to prove it.”
People cause bear deaths for a number of reasons, including bears hit by cars, bears removed from neighborhoods and bears killed in the hunt. Last year, 677 bears were killed due to humans, though the FWC says this is less than the 20 percent annual mortality needed to achieve a healthy number of bears. At a public webinar in May, FWC bear management program coordinator Dave Telesco says the agency is “throwing everything and the kitchen sink” at the problem of managing the bear population, including educating residents, seeking voluntary compliance in securing trashcans, and removing and hunting bears. “We want to make sure that future generations can enjoy and appreciate healthy and abundant bear populations,” Wiley wrote in a column for the Orlando Sentinel. “If this growth is not carefully monitored and controlled, it can spell danger for bears and humans.”
But in a recent letter to the FWC, three biologists say the agency needs to do a more complete demographic analysis before it approves another hunt.
Matthew Aresco, director at the Nokuse Plantation, says he and his colleagues wrote to the FWC after noticing the agency wasn’t collecting data on the sex and age class ratios of each black bear subpopulation to determine age-specific survival and reproduction rates. Using demographic data from previous studies of Florida’s Central Bear Management Unit, the scientists say the number of bears killed by cars, euthanization and the hunt was five times the sustainable rate for a stable population. The scientists also called for the state’s national forests and federal land to be designated as black bear sanctuaries, saying any hunting of the bears should occur outside those sanctuaries.
“Knowing how many you have in a population doesn’t tell you how many you can harvest out of the population and not go into decline,” he says. “They’re already using these techniques for other species. Other than the population estimates, they’re not using the best available practices for bears.”
Aresco says the group met with wildlife officials in January to tell them their concerns, but the FWC was resistant. They don’t know why the FWC chose not to do this study for bears, when it is conducted on an annual basis for fish species like red drum, snook and spotted seatrout.
“The concern with not collecting this data is population decline,” he says. “You don’t know what the effects of hunting will be until it’s too late. The bears could go back on the threatened species list. You would have to do all the things you did before to try to recover it.”
In response to the letter, FWC spokeswoman Tammy Sapp says in a statement that the agency’s science on bear conservation is “some of the best in the country and was developed by our biologists in partnership with the University of Tennessee and the University of Florida.”
“We disagree with many of the assertions made in this letter, but we will continue to work with anyone who has questions about Florida’s growing bear population,” she says.
And as FWC’s director has pointed out, the hunt may not lessen the conflicts between humans and bears, which is what Lake Mary resident Eddie Selover was actually interested in.
For about a year, Selover and his neighbors shared their community with about eight black bears. The bears and their young cubs moved in after undeveloped land next to their homes was cleared for a new development. It was almost comical, Selover says. The bears would walk around the streets in broad daylight or hang out in trees near his home. Some of his neighbors would even bring their kids to the grassy area where the bears played, like it was a zoo.
But as the bears began getting bigger, Selover’s anxiety grew and he began calling FWC. One bear attacked a dog, which had to be put down, and then another bear attacked a dog and its owner in the next community over. That’s when FWC finally killed and removed the bears, though Selover did see the occasional bear after that.
“We were thinking about moving downtown to get away from it,” Selover says. “To walk her dog, my wife had to drive two miles away. To me, it was no different than a lion, a jaguar or a tiger just roaming the streets, on the loose. No one seemed to be willing to do anything until someone got hurt.”
Recently, the National Rifle Association and the Unified Sportsmen of Florida came out in support of the bear hunt and asked the FWC in a letter to expand it, saying, “Bears continue to terrorize homeowners and prevent families from allowing children to play outside in some areas.”
Selover says the NRA’s letter is just an attempt to sell more of their product and that the bear hunt is a “typical bureaucratic solution” that doesn’t address the human-bear contact problem.
“I feel like they were trying to placate people like me, but ended up disgusting everyone,” he says. “They should spend some time developing places to relocate these bears and plan to only kill as a last resort. But I also found it frustrating when people objected to bears being harmed at all, which is easy to say when you don’t have eight of them in your backyard. Overall, I didn’t hear anyone saying something that sounded realistic to me. ‘Don’t leave your trashcan out,’ is not helpful advice.”
Animal activists are coming out hard against the proposed bear hunt this year, which may ultimately result in some changes to how the FWC works.
This weekend, protests are scheduled across 28 cities in Florida on Saturday, June 18, says Adam Sugalski, campaign director for the group “Stop the Florida Bear Hunt.” In Orlando, the protest will be held at Lake Eola Park at 11 a.m.
Sugalski says although he’s a vegan, he’s not against hunting if a person is hunting for food. But Florida’s bear hunt wasn’t for necessity – it was trophy hunting, he says. And it’s not a Second Amendment issue, either.
“The NRA is acting like animal rights activists want to take away gun rights,” he says. “I have several guns for protection, and for them to come in and say that, most people think it’s ridiculous.”
Sugalski says another bear hunt is pretty much imminent, so activists plan to push the FWC to keep the number of licenses limited and prevent hunters from using hounds, which was not allowed last year.
“When the public’s trustees protect bears and the habitat that sustains them, they protect the entire trust; when they fail to protect bears, they place the entire trust in jeopardy,” Sugalski and his members wrote in a long letter to the FWC.
Commissioners on the FWC have also attracted the ire of activists. The seven-member board is made up of contractors, landowners, developers, lawyers, Republican donors and one cattle rancher.
Chuck O’Neal, director of Speak Up Wekiva, the organization that sued the FWC to stop the hunt, says he and others are working to propose two constitutional amendments for 2018 ballot. The first would make the FWC an elected body, not an appointed board, and the second would require a voter referendum to hunt any species currently or previously listed as a protected species.
“The public spends a great deal of money to bring these species back from the brink of extinction,” he says. “We elevate roadways, build higher fences and pay all this money, and then the FWC ends up hunting them again. It’s anti-democratic. If they do this hunt, it’s going to fuel their own demise.”
O’Neal says the FWC are in a “Tallahassee bubble” that doesn’t represent the rest of Florida.
“Every indication that we’ve gotten is that they’re going to set a hunt,” he says. “They’re a runaway commission of political appointees who do things contrary to the public’s will and sound science. That’s why they have to be stopped.”