JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – With Florida's black bears rebounding from near extinction, clashes with humans are on the rise, and the state is considering a limited hunting season as part of the solution.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission didn't make a decision Wednesday but appeared receptive to the idea, raising cheers from hunters and the hackles of animal rights advocates. It would be the first time since 1994 for legalized bear hunting in the state.
"It was time to stop hunting then, and I think it's appropriate now to start hunting bears again," said Thomas Eason, director of habitat and species conservation for the commission, before a conference room in Jacksonville packed with hunters and conservationists.
Nationwide, 32 of the 41 states with bear populations allow hunting to help control numbers. Eason says Florida is the only state with more than 1,000 bears that doesn't allow some hunting.
The black bear population is rebounding from the Panhandle to Big Cypress National Preserve, near Miami. In 1974, there were 300 to 500. Now, there are believed to be more than 3,000.
In the past year, there have been four black bear attacks on people. Calls to wildlife officials about bears have increased by 400 percent over the past decade. And bear deaths by vehicles are on the rise: In 1990, 33 were killed, compared with 285 in 2012, according to state data.
There are more people in the state, too. Florida is now the third most populous state. Bears are talented at finding food, and people make it easy by tossing food scraps in the garbage and leaving trash cans unsecured, officials say.
The most recent bear attack was Dec. 20 in the Panhandle. A 15-year-old girl walking her dog was attacked. She suffered cuts on her head and face, as well as claw and bite marks on her back, arm and leg. Wildlife officials say they euthanized four bears in the area and relocated two cubs. Two other attacks occurred in the Orlando suburb of Lake Mary.
Hunting would be one part of a larger strategy that includes providing residents with bear-resistant trashcans and educating those who live near bear habitats.
Florida would start with a weeklong hunting season in the fall. It would allow for up to 20 percent of specific subpopulations to be hunted, excluding females with cubs and smaller bears. The commission scheduled an announcement for Thursday to outline which steps it would take on hunting and other measures.
Doug Moore, owner of the South Prong Hunt Club in northeast Florida, said allowing bear hunting would help his business, which now focuses on turkey, deer and hog hunts. He says he loses hunters to clubs in Georgia and other neighboring states where hunting bear is legal.
Moore and other hunters urged the commission to allow dogs for use in hunting, calling it a traditional practice. They also want officials to allow for extra "tree and release" time, with hunters allowed to tree the bears for sport but do to kill them.
Eason said the plans would not allow hunting everywhere. "We're not going to have hunters out in these suburban neighborhoods where these conflicts are occurring," he said. Instead, officials would focus on the bear-resistant trashcans, which he said seems to be the most effective approach, based on efforts in two counties.
Animal-rights activists challenged the idea that hunting can be used to help control bears.
"Killing bears deep in the woods who aren't causing problems is the wrong approach," said Kate McFall of the Humane Society of the United States. "Voters want humane, effective solutions to conflicts with bears."
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