Important facts about Florida black bear conservation

A Florida black bear cub clings to a pine tree. Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission photo.

A Florida black bear cub clings to a pine tree. Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission photo.

The many articles and editorials addressing the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s proposal to reinstate limited bear hunting have not gone unnoticed by Nick Wiley. As the FWC’s executive director, Wiley, who is also a certified wildlife biologist, provides what he calls a “factual perspective” on the commission’s approach to bear management and the proposed bear hunting season.

The Observer News has edited this article for reasons of space. 

Some articles have suggested there is a lack of sufficient scientific information to support a limited bear hunt or that the hunt would be too soon after removing black bears from the state threatened species list. FWC biologists have been researching and monitoring Florida black bears for decades. Bear populations declined to low levels through the 1970s and early ’80s but then began a strong recovery. In 2002, FWC conducted a scientific population survey estimating the statewide population at approximately 3,000 bears. Instead of pursuing reclassification at that time, the FWC initiated a multiyear process of developing and fully vetting a comprehensive Bear Management Plan with partners and stakeholders.

So, yes, in 2012, after taking all of these precautions, considering the strong scientific baseline of bear population recovery and approval of a landmark bear management plan, FWC removed the black bear from the state’s threatened species list.

Contrary to many inaccurate reports suggesting bear hunting is being proposed in direct response to recent bear attacks and escalating human-bear conflicts, hunting was incorporated into the bear management plan from the very beginning as a population management method. The scientific surveys conducted in 2002 serve as a sound scientific foundation for determining which bear management units (BMUs) are most appropriate for hunting and for establishing responsible harvest objectives. Actually, a number of bear population indicators provide additional points of information to confirm bear populations are continuing to grow beyond the 2002 survey baseline. These indicators include citizen calls/complaints about bears and records of bears killed by vehicles on roads. Even though these indicators suggest population growth, the FWC is taking a conservative approach to recommending harvest objectives by using the 2002 survey data until more recent survey data is available.

A game camera captures nighttime activity of a pair of adult black bears. Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission photo.

A game camera captures nighttime activity of a pair of adult black bears. Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission photo.

FWC is in the process of completing a new statewide bear population survey. In fact, this survey is the most ambitious, extensive and scientifically rigorous bear population survey ever undertaken in Florida. The first phase of this survey project was recently completed, and we now have updated population estimates for two BMUs. In the North BMU anchored by the Osceola National Forest, the black bear population now exceeds 500 bears, more than doubling the estimate from 2002. In the Central BMU anchored by the Ocala National Forest, the population estimate surpasses 1,200 bears, increasing nearly 30 percent over the previous estimate. Updated population information for three additional BMUs is expected next year and will be used to guide management efforts in subsequent years.

There is a misconception circulating that suggests the reinstated bear hunt would be nothing more than a “trophy” hunt. The primary purpose of a limited bear harvest is to manage the bear population while providing carefully regulated hunting opportunities, and the proposed hunt has been aligned accordingly. The term “trophy hunt” is being used to question, if not impugn, the motives of individuals who may choose to participate in a bear hunt. This term is being used erroneously in an attempt to influence public opinion against bear hunting and hunters because polling suggests many Floridians support legal and ethical hunting while the term “trophy hunt” can be used to exploit or confuse the views of the uninformed.

Throughout the history of our nation, hunters have been first and foremost when it comes to supporting and funding wildlife conservation and restoration. This is a well-established fact. Many species of game and non-game wildlife and their habitats have been recovered and are thriving now, thanks to the strong support and leadership from hunters.

Additionally, proposed FWC rules for bear hunting provide a strong measure of accountability by requiring that every harvested bear must be removed from the field and checked at an FWC staffed check station. Moreover, FWC rules prohibit wanton waste of any harvested game, and any fees derived from bear hunting permits will help fund bear conservation efforts.

It is true that a majority of individual comments reflects opposition to bear hunting. While public opinion is an important consideration, we also have a responsibility to weigh the scientific information, professional experience, cost effectiveness and practical feasibility when choosing the most appropriate means to manage sustainable, healthy bear populations with priority concern for human safety and other public interests. Although there is a large amount of opposition to bear hunting, those comments do not offer any viable or effective alternatives.

Additionally, wild bears do not survive well in captivity, and there are very few captive facilities willing to take wild bears and house them for many years.

Reports in the media continue to suggest that bear hunting is being proposed to directly reduce human-bear conflicts although there is no scientific evidence to support the notion that hunting bears in the deep woods will help resolve conflicts. FWC has been very clear from the beginning of the discussion about bear hunting that the primary purpose is to control increasing bear populations, and hunting is one tool in our comprehensive approach to overall bear conservation efforts.

The notion that bear hunts will only target bears in the “deep woods” that would never cause conflicts is not an accurate characterization of the situation in Florida. Florida is the third most populous state in the nation, approaching 20 million people. There are few areas in Florida where bears are unlikely to encounter people, and bears can range widely over large areas. Many bears that get into conflicts with people live in wooded areas that would be open for hunting but venture for long distances into communities or residential areas when they smell food or garbage and then become conflict bears.

The FWC has made it clear that the most effective measure for minimizing human-bear conflicts is effective management of garbage and food attractants. Once a bear becomes a conflict bear and loses a natural fear of people, the most effective measures are direct hazing or ultimately trapping and euthanasia. We are not certain how many bears may be conditioned to avoid people through hunting pressure or how many current or potential conflict bears may be removed during the hunts. If the proposed hunt is implemented, we should be able to gain insights into the impacts hunting may have on conflict bears.

Hunting is best tool

As important as it is to work with communities to address bear-related conflicts, this effort does not help us manage growing bear populations. Florida is the only state with a population of more than 600 bears that does not utilize bear hunting as a population management tool. It is a scientifically proven fact that bear hunting is biologically sustainable and the most effective tool for maintaining proper balance of bear populations relative to available habitat.

It can be a struggle to get our arms around the fact that the Florida black bear represents a great conservation success story in Florida, and we need to transition from saving bears to managing bears. Major challenges come with this kind of success involving such a magnificent wild creature. The level of care, commitment and even respectful disagreement I see from my fellow Floridians tells me that we are up to the challenge, and we will certainly have thriving bear populations well into the future.

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