On Saturday, October 24, the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) authorized the first hunt of the Florida black bear in 21 years; and three years after this iconic animal was removed from the threatened species list. This hunt was to last for seven days.
However, the death toll and carnage inflicted upon the black bear was so devastating, the FWC had to call the hunt on Sunday, effectively meeting the hunting goal of 320 bear in less than a 48-hour period. And News-Press.com described this hunt as “poorly conceived, poorly coordinated, poorly conducted and the end result was embarrassing for Florida.”
In 1994, the Commission of Game & Fresh Water Fish (GFC) closed all remaining areas in the state of Florida for bear hunting; and at that time there were only about 1,250 black bear remaining in the state. But, thanks in part to this hunting ban and other conservation efforts, the population had recovered to an estimated 3,000+ bear in six core areas (Eglin, Apalachicola, Osceola, St. Johns and Big Cypress) and two remnant areas (Chassahowitzka and Glades / Highlands).
Yet, despite the fact that the Florida black bear had been removed from the threatened species list three years ago, the FWC made the decision to authorize the killing of up to 320 bear in this hunt. This number was based upon (1) bear count estimates; (2) historic annual mortality rates of 8% to 10%; and (3) an assumption that a subpopulation of at least 200 bear could absorb and survive up to a 23% annual mortality rate and still sustain the species.
As noted in the chart below, the FWC determined that four geographic regions (East Panhandle, North, Central and South Regions) supported this hunt, with the “Objective” in each region to reduce the bear population by 20%, which also factored in the annual average mortality rate.
Est. Bear 20% Mortality Hunt
Region Total of Total Estimate Objective EastPanhandle 600 120 80 40
North 550 110 10 100
Central 1,300 260 160 100
South 700 140 20 80
Total 3,150 630 270 320
The map below identifies the four Bear Management Units (BMU) that were targeted for this hunt.
In an effort to justify this hunt, the FWC argued that the increase in complaint calls, as well as several reported incidents of actual bear attacks justified the need to pare down the bear population. According to the FWC, in 2014, they fielded in excess of 6,000 complaint calls from concerned citizens. They also reported that 227 black bear were killed in vehicle related accidents in 2014. And while this information on the surface might appear to justify the need for this hunt, there is more to the story.
CONFLICTS & INCONSISTENCIES ABOUND
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) is composed of seven members; all appointed by the governor and all serve five-year renewable terms. However, the current commission has been described as “a Breakfast Club of power players: a builder, a road builder, a rancher, a hotel magnate, a power company executive, a Republican bigwig, and a developer”. There is not a single conservationist or animal welfare advocate that sits on this board; and it can easily be argued that every one of these Commissioners has a conflict of interest when it comes to the protection of Florida’s wildlife and the environment.
This said, in 2012 the FWC released the “The Florida Black Bear Management Plan” (The Plan), a 200+ page study with an overall objective to “maintain sustainable black bear populations in suitable habitats throughout Florida for the benefit of the species and the people”; and to “address these conservation challenges and to ensure that bears will never again need to be listed as a threatened species”.
Additionally, Florida Administrative Code 68A-4.009 was promulgated to further protect the Florida Black Bear, stating:
(1) No person shall take, possess, injure, shoot, collect, or sell black bears or their parts or to attempt to engage in such conduct except as authorized by Commission rule or by permit from the Commission;
(2) The Commission will issue permits authorizing intentional take of bears when it determines such authorization furthers scientific or conservation purposes which will benefit the survival potential of the species or to reduce property damage caused by bears. For purposes of this rule, activities that are eligible for a permit include:
(a) Collection of scientific data needed for conservation or management of the species;
(b) Taking bears that are causing property damage when no non-lethal options can provide practical resolution to the damage, and the Commission is unable to capture the bear.
In 2014, the FWC updated bear population counts for the North and Central Bear Management Units (BMU); however, they had not completed counts for the East Panhandle and South BMU’s. And although those counts had not been updated in 13 years and were to be completed in 2016, the FWC still made the decision to move forward this hunt in 2015. Even Ron Bergeron, the only FWC Commissioner that voted against the hunt was quoted by the Sun Sentinel in September to say “You should have all your science in place before you hold your first hunt in 21 years, especially when you’re dealing with an icon animal.”
In addition, the FWC chose not to limit the number of permits for this hunt; and ultimately sold a total of 3,778 – enough to kill every bear in the state. And although the FWC established a limit of 320 bear, they also guaranteed a two-day hunt; and acknowledged that the total number of bear killed would not be counted until after the end of the second day. So, with a two-day commitment, there was no guarantee that the number of bear killed would be limited to the targeted 320.
While the FWC justified this hunt based upon the perceived “human – bear conflict”, they also acknowledged via their website that “The mere presence of a black bear does not represent a problem. In fact, living in black bear country can provide unique and rewarding experiences! The best way to enjoy our wildlife is to keep them wild and away from food sources like garbage, pet food, and bird seed.”
The FWC further acknowledged that “there is no shortage of natural foods in Florida’s forests for bears. They are very opportunistic feeders and are technically omnivores. Bear typically wander into residential areas because the food they can find there is high in calories and easy to get.“ The FWC further noted that “black bears avoid confrontation 90% of the time. They are naturally shy animals that will generally give plenty of warnings (e.g. jaw popping, huffing, bluff charging) before attacking”.
Nick Wiley, the Executive Director of the FWC acknowledged that the two attacks on humans in 2013 and the two attacks in 2014 did not prompt the bear hunt because they can’t prove this would reduce future incidents. He further stated that “We have never proposed bear hunting as a solution to conflicts. It’s to control the bear population. We don’t know for sure it will lessen the conflicts. We don’t have the science to prove it.”
The FWC also agreed with animal rights supporters that the best way to minimize human-bear conflict is through managing garbage and food attractants, such as utilizing bear-proof trash cans. And while the FWC suggested that “hunting” is a one tool in their comprehensive approach to curbing the population, the Florida Black Bear Management Plan makes no mention of hunting the black bear as part of the plan.
The FWC also acknowledged that 75% of the 40,000+ calls, letters and emails from Florida residents stated opposition to the hunt; but that they had to weigh public opinion versus scientific research…even though as Mr. Wiley acknowledged, there was not supportable scientific research to justify this hunt.
SO, WHAT WAS THE OUTCOME?
According to the FWC, total bear killed in this hunt was 304. However, both the North and South bear management unit (BMU) fell well short of their targeted range. The North BMU only met 25% of the targeted number, while the South BMU was slightly higher at 275. On the opposite extreme, the Central BMU (143%) and East Panhandle BMU (285%) embarrassingly exceeded their target numbers; particularly considering that those numbers were met on the first day of the hunt.
Naturally, this raises the question as to whether the FWC truly had any idea as to the actual population count; or if this were simply a guesstimate. And if the FWC was working with inaccurate assumptions and inaccurate data, then we really have no idea as to the detrimental impact this hunt may have on the black bear, both short-term and long-term.
As noted earlier, there were nearly 6,000 complaint calls made in 2014. However, the majority of these were made by concerned citizens to either report a bear in the area, or a complaint the bear had dumped over a trash can and was rummaging through the garbage.
And while there were 227 black bear killed in vehicular accidents in 2014, this actually represents a 20% reduction over the 285 bears that were killed in 2012; thanks to the construction of wildlife underpasses, the posting of warning signs and reduced speed limits in frequent roadkill areas, providing of information at rest stops and tourist information areas, and other measures.
Thus while complaint calls have increased from 1990 to 2014, this would be expected, given that Florida’s population of 13.03 million in 1990 had increased 53% to 19.89 million by 2014. Add 6 million more people and development that infringes upon the bear’s natural habitat, this equates to more human – bear conflict.
Diane Eggeman, FWC’s hunting director, predicted the hunt would claim 183 bears, based upon similar hunts in other states; while Brad McNaughton, the Central Florida Bear Hunters Association President commented that “If you do it by the (Florida) rules, no dogs and no baiting, it won’t be easy. It’ll be a luck deal. They’re sneaky suckers,” he said. And although Ms. Eggeman substantially under estimated the number of bear killed, perhaps there is some truth to both of these statements. They both assumed that all 3,778 hunters would play by the rules, which unfortunately, was not the case. Those rules included:
• No baiting. (Evidence has been presented that baiting did take place; and based upon the number of bear killed so quickly on Saturday, speculation is that baiting had occurred days, if not weeks before the hunt started.)
• No killing of mothers with cubs (The final tally was 179 female bear, of which 21%, or 38 were lactating.)
• No killing of cubs under 100 pounds. (Per Politico Florida, eight of the 170 were less than 100 pounds; and again using the same ratio for the 298 bear kills reported by the FWC, this would indicate a total of 14 cubs killed.)
Hunt Florida TV channel, commission spokesman Tony Young said, “If you see a bear that comes out into view, and you’re thinking about harvesting it because it looks big enough, give it a little while and make sure it doesn’t have a cub with it.” Unfortunately, this advice was not followed by everyone.
This article would be substantially shorter if we summarized what went right; because quite frankly, the only “right” of this entire event was in the fact that it was mercifully shut down after the second day. So, let’s summarize the failures.
• The FWC is a commission consisting of developers, attorneys, ranchers and hunters. Not a single commissioner has experience in conservation or biology. Simply put, the financial interest of a developer or rancher is contrary to the protection of Florida’s wildlife, including the black bear and Florida panther, both of which are deemed to be a threat to “progress”.
• The FWC produced a detailed Bear Management Plan in 2012 which was developed to ensure the black bear would never again become a threatened species. A hunting program was never addressed as part of this plan; and this recent hunt represents a significant step backward in what had been a great story of recovery.
• Seventy five percent of Florida residents were opposed to this hunt; yet the FWC ignored the overwhelming majority…and ignored the science as well. Yet, there is no evidence that the FWC decision was a nod to hunters either. There were a number of hunters that were also against the hunt, with some describing this event as about the same as going out and shooting your own dog. Many of the bear had grown accustomed to humans, had no reason to fear them, and walked right up to the hunters. With exception of fences or cages, this essentially became a glorified canned hunt.
• The FWC choose to move ahead with this hunt before final bear counts were even completed. The completion date was targeted for 2016; but the FWC offered no adequate explanation as to why this hunt was held before finalization of the counts. As the final numbers attested, it was clear that the FWC had no idea as to how many bear, nor where they were located geographically.
• The FWC did not limit the number of permits sold for the bear hunt. Ultimately, there were 3,778 permits sold…enough to kill every black bear in the state. Obviously, that was not going to happen. However, the FWC certainly positioned the black bear into a precarious position that, with a guaranteed two-day hunt, could have been decimated beyond recovery. This was a poor advised gamble that could have had (and may still have) catastrophic consequences.
• The $100 in-state permit fee and $300 out-of-state permit fees were minimal and therefore, failed to generate any significant revenue that could have been invested in bear conservation efforts. Given that this was the first hunt in 21 years and a lot of hunters excited about the opportunity of killing a black bear, the permit price seemed artificially low. This is particularly perplexing, given that Brian Yablonski, the Chairman of the FWC is a major supporter and advocate of the “economic value theory”. The theory goes that the conservation and protection of a species increases in proportion to the animal’s market value. The greater the value, the greater the conservation effort.
Therefore, one would have assumed that the first hunt in 20+ years of an iconic animal such as the Florida black bear would have yielded a much higher permit fee… $2,000 to $3,000. The final amount collected was $377,000, which will do very little toward future conservation of the bear. Higher permit fees would have raised significantly more money that could have gone toward a bear proof trash can subsidy program, further education of the residents in bear country; and investment in over-passes or under-passes, allowing bear and panthers safe haven and access over or under busy highways.
• By allowing an unlimited number of hunters, a compacted hunting period, and a two-day guarantee, the FWC was virtually assured of an unmanageable hunt. Expanding the hunt into multiple weeks and limiting the number of hunters on any given day, this would have helped to manage the hunt count, and ensured that both the Eastern Panhandle and Central Florida bear counts remained in check.
• The FWC held the bear hunt in the first place. Aside from the mistakes referenced above, the simple fact is that there was no justification to even have the bear hunt. The FWC acknowledged that there was not an over-population issue. They acknowledged that natural food sources were ample. They acknowledged that the isolated incidents where bear actually attacked humans was due to human provocation. (Bears are very shy animals, and almost never initiate an unprovoked attack.)
• The FWC acknowledged that the most effective way of controlling the human – bear conflict is to educate the public, and to place a greater emphasis of bear proof trash cans in bear country. Yet, the FWC ultimately justified the bear hunt on the basis that it would reduce the human – bear conflict, even though they acknowledged this hunt would not accomplish that goal. “We know this isn’t going to work but we are going to do it anyway” appeared to be the mantra of the FWC. Additionally, the majority of the bear killed were in Marion County, and deep in the Ocala National Forest. These were not even the bear that were creating the human-bear conflict in the first place.
A week after the hunt, a kayaker discovered a dead bear cub floating in the Suwannee River; a previously unreported casualty of this disaster of a bear hunt, which brings up the necessary discussion as to aftershocks associated with this hunt.
Orphaned cubs, according to the FWC are capable of surviving on their own at about 8 months; and with an October hunt, most would have been 8 to 9 months old. Based upon the reported 38 lactating mothers that were killed, and an average litter of 2.5 bear cubs (typical litter are two to three bear cubs), that would equate to approximately 94 orphaned cubs.
And while cubs may have the ability to find food and survive on their own, a 70 or 80 pound cub would have a significantly less chance of surviving the attack of a 300 or 400 pound full-grown male, than one with a mother there to defend him or her. So, the mortality rate of orphaned cubs necessarily will be higher than the mortality rate of cubs protected by a mother bear. According to http://www.bear.org, the one-year survival rate of a litter of two bear is 88% and three bear is 82%, so an average of about 85%. Without a protective mother bear, the survival rate is assumed to be significantly less than 85%.
Additionally, subsequent to the bear hunt, there have been increased reports of bear sightings in residential neighborhoods. This is not surprising and should have been expected; but perhaps with exception of the FWC. There are two reasons for this.
One, the young orphaned bears do not have the same level of foraging experience as their moms. The logical question must be posed as to why they normally stay with their mother for an average of eighteen months if they only require eight months? The answer is simple…that is the ideal period of time that nature intended for these bear to have the best chance of survival.
And because these young bear do not have those years of foraging experience, they are likely to seek more readily available food sources like leftover food in unsecured trash cans. Even the FWC noted: “Bear typically wander into residential areas because the food they can find there is high in calories and easy to get. Because black bears are “smart enough to be lazy” and take the path of least resistance – the neighborhood. They will spend a few hours in a neighborhood getting into trash cans, bird feeders, or gardens and get the same number of calories.”
Secondly, bear are intelligent animals and many are now associating the forest with the carnage that took place in the woods. They now see the residential area as a safer environment, which obviously will only result in an increased level of human – bear conflict.
The official tally provided by the FWC is 304 bear. This appears to be an artificially low number. However, even if that is correct, after adding the unaccounted bear injured and never found, the increase in orphaned cub mortality, the increase in bear – human conflict, and loss of future offspring, what is the true death toll resulting from this bear hunt? And what is the long-term impact? Whatever the answer is, it is significantly higher than the original target of 320 bear.
THE ATTACK CONTINUES
Subsequent to the conclusion of the 2015 hunt, the FWC has now introduced proposed changes to Florida Administrative Code 68A-4.009. The most significant change to this code section would be to remove the sub-species categorization of the black bear. Specifically,
1) Remove any references to the specific subspecies of the Florida black bear (Ursus Americanus Floridanus) from the rule, including the title. This change is necessary to:
A) maintain consistency and avoid confusion because all other references to bears in F.A.C.s refer to black bears and do not refer to the specific subspecies Florida black bear, and
B) clarify that any black bear in Florida is protected under the rule. A Florida black bear is physically indistinguishable from an American black bear or Louisiana black bear, which are the two other subspecies of black bears inhabiting the eastern United States. While we have never found anything but a Florida black bear in Florida through thousands of genetic samples analyzed, removing the subspecies reference from the rule would negate the need to analyze DNA from a bear to prove it is the subspecies and therefore is protected under this rule.
This explanation sounds mundane, and suggests that the FWC is proposing this change for simplification purposes. However, the true intent is more sinister.
Current sources indicate that there are approximately 300,000 black bear living throughout the lower 48 states. And while there are actually 16 subspecies, only the Louisiana Black Bear and Florida Black Bear are in that volatile category…the Louisiana black bear currently listed on the federal register as threatened, while the Florida black bear was considered threatened until 2012.
The Florida black bear, as a subspecies of approximately 3,000, enjoys (or had enjoyed) special protections that he would not have received if categorized as part of the larger 300,000 black bear species.
In other words, had the sub species title been removed back in 1994 (when the GFC imposed the hunting ban), there likely would have never been a hunting ban because technically, there would not be an existence of a Florida black bear. He would just be a “black bear” and as long as the overall species of black bear was a healthy number, it wouldn’t matter whether or not a black bear population existed in Florida or not.
Now whether that is the intent of the FWC, only the FWC can answer that question. However, this effort to amend the Administrative Code Section should be a concern to wildlife advocates. And it should be noted that the FWC also desires to remove the subspecies categorization of the Florida panther, which would remove his endangered species protections as well.
It also needs to be noted that as to whether there is a difference between the Florida black bear and other black bears, even the FWC states on their website that the Florida “black bear can be distinguished from other subspecies by genetic and skeletal differences.” So, when the FWC acknowledges that there are genetic and skeletal differences, one must question the underlying intent of differentiating the bear, yet wanting to pretend there is no differentiation. This should be viewed with suspicion.
Additionally, the FWC has also indicated the intent to have another hunt in 2016, although in recent days Dianne Eggeman has walked that statement back and indicated that the FWC will not make a decision on future hunts until they complete a thorough review of the 2015 hunt.
Meanwhile, Thomas Eason, Director of the FWC’s Habitat and Species Conservation Division has been recently quoted to believe that there are now an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 bear now living in Florida; and producing 1,200 cubs per year. I find this interesting because it is quite obvious now that the FWC was simply guessing when they estimated the 3,000 bear in Florida. Now, they are guessing 5,000 bear? Or is it 6,000? Or does that 5,000 or 6,000 number include the 304 bear reported killed during this hunt? Does anyone really believe any of this?
With regards to the 1,200 cubs per year, this would suggest an annual growth rate of 20% to 24% per year, based upon his assumption of 5,000 to 6,000 bear. It is a generally accepted fact that the average mortality rate of a typical bear population, without undue influences of hunting and other non-natural events is about 10% per year. In fact, in determining the targeted 320 bear in this year’s hunt, the FWC acknowledged a 10% goal, which added to the 10% mortality rate, would equate to an overall number of 20%. They deemed this a conservative number, as previous studies had indicated that up to 23% of a bear population could be killed in a given year without risk of sustainability of the species.
In 1994, there were an estimated 1,250 bear. If we assume a 20% growth rate (which is based upon a 1,200 cub to 6,000 total population that Mr. Eason provided; 24% if the ratio was 1,200 to 5,000 bear) and assume the 10% mortality rate during that period (as hunting was not allowed from 1994 through 2014), this would actually indicate that Florida’s black bear population would be nearly 52,000. Yet, I don’t believe anyone would consider that to be an accurate number.
However, this is simple math; it assumes the 20% cub birth rate provided by Mr. Easton and a 10% overall mortality rate every year. Run the numbers. I did. It works. So, by this calculation, even he has substantially underestimated the overall bear population.
Unless…he is grossly exaggerating the bear numbers, or just making it up because it sounds good. This is not an accusation, but the numbers clearly do not add up; and I would have assumed that the director of habitat and species conservation would have factual data to support these assumptions.
According to the FWC, there was an estimated 3,000 to 3,500 bear before this hunt began. Assuming the 1994 number of 1,250 is accurate (and I have found no dispute of this number), this would suggest an annual net bear increase of around 4.5% per year.
Assuming the same 10% mortality rate, this would indicate a cub production rate of around 5.5% per year, substantially less than the 20% estimated by Mr. Eason. And in fact, http://www.bearsmart.com notes that “Bears are among the least productive mammals in North America.” So perhaps, Mr. Eason has been a little too optimistic concerning the reproductive rate of the black bear; or of the total population, or both.
And why would the FWC once again go on record with a number before final counts have even been completed? This just seems to further enforce incompetence or an agenda reliant upon a gross misstatements of fact, exaggerations or egregious lies.
It should also be noted that Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Jon Steverson has within the past few days, proposed for the upcoming legislative session that the state open up all 161 state parks to hunting, in an effort to “maximize moneymaking opportunities.”
One must acknowledge that there are situations when the only choice we have is to forcibly reduce wildlife populations, particularly when there is a perceived over-population of that animal. Of course, that over-population is almost certainly our fault as well, as we have tampered with the delicate balance of the ecosystem. We have either killed too many predators like the wolf or mountain lion or bobcat or coyote, resulting an over-population of prey animals. Or, we have reduced the animal habitat to such a confined space, they have no place else to go. They are then considered “nuisance” animals because they are infringing on our territory, even though we actually infringed upon their territory first.
And it is ironic when you think about the fact that when the human population over-populates, we don’t hire hunters to reduce the human population to manageable levels. Rather, we simply take over more land to accommodate people. Animals generally don’t over-populate. We just force them into smaller and smaller habitats; and as those habitats become smaller, there is a perceived over-population. And the answer to that problem is to kill and reduce.
The majority of Florida’s citizens did not want this hunt in the first place. After the black eye that the FWC has inflicted upon the state with this embarrassing, unjustified hunt, one can only hopes that the FWC will bow to the will of the people…and to common sense…and to intelligent conservation measures.
The actions of the FWC leading up to this bear hunt, the management of the actual hunt, and their actions after the hunt, combined with the recent legislative efforts, and DEP’s thoughts to legalize hunting in all state parks should send an alarming message to Florida’s residents. The attitude of the current state Administration toward wildlife and the environment is rather obvious, and one only hopes that something can be done before there is irreparable damage. If not, the repercussions of this will be felt by all parties involved: hunters and non-hunters.
The FWC has masterfully manipulated a situation where many of the animal advocates and hunting advocates believe that they are each other’s primary adversary in this battle. As those two groups expend energy fighting one another, the FWC continues to quietly pursue an agenda under the radar; with the hunting and animal advocates too busy fighting one another to take notice.
Fortunately, many appear to be waking up to this; and let’s hope for the sake of the bear and all Florida wildlife, something can be done before it is too late.