THE FLORIDA BLACK BEAR HUNT – AFTERMATH

Something is bothering me and I just can’t shake this thought, no matter how hard I try. I take a deep breath and try to reflect on last weekend’s tragedy and travesty and desperately reach for even a small iota of reasoning or justification for the Florida black bear massacre. The problem is, I can’t.

A hunt that was ill conceived from the beginning, that was supposed to last for seven days, barely made two days before the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) mercifully put a stop to this. And what irks me is that they are touting the hunt as being so successful, that it only took two days to reach the targeted goal. And worse, many of the talking heads on local television are also using that same word “success” to describe the hunt.

Fortunately, it appears that journalistic integrity is beginning to penetrate this charade, and the true colors of this hunt are beginning to show.

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BY THE NUMBERS

Because this hunt was so horrific, from planning to implementation to result, it was evident and obvious that by early Saturday afternoon, the hunt would not extend beyond the weekend. And original reports on Saturday were projected out to estimate that as many as 450 bear had actually been killed; and potentially 800 to 1,000 for the weekend. That would have had catastrophic implications on the bear population.

On Sunday evening, the FWS called the hunt off and a day later, provided an official reported count of 295. However, this final tally bothers me, and bothers others, because honestly, it doesn’t add up; nor does it consider the aftermath implications. So, let’s discuss that.

In 2012, the FWC published a study entitled “The Florida Black Bear Management Plan”. This is THE handbook, THE playbook, if you will, developed by the FWC to “maintain sustainable black bear populations in suitable habitats throughout Florida for the benefit of the species and the people.” This study determined that there needed to be at least one subpopulation of at least 1,000 individual bear, as well as smaller subpopulations areas of at least 200 bear each.

So, although the overall “goal” of this hunt was 320 bear (theoretically representing 10% of the bear population), the FWC supposedly analyzed the six core bear management areas and the two remnant areas, and concluded that there were a total of four core areas that would support the bear hunt. That included the Central region (1,300 bear), representing the one sub-population of at least 1,000 bear, and three additional regions: East, North and South. And this is where the math becomes fuzzy.

Although the FWC completed counts of the North and Central bear populations in 2014, the East and South region counts had not been completed at the time of the hunt, and are not expected to be released until 2016. Yet, there was only one FWC Commissioner against the hunt. Ron Bergeron 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.”

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Based upon this partially completed study, and even with bear counts in the East and South regions last occurring in 2002, the FWC still approved the hunt. So, was there any surprise that the final numbers were vastly inconsistent, suggesting that the FWC really had no clue as to what the actual numbers were, and where the greatest damage would incur, in terms of bear kills?

Region      Orig. Est.     Targeted     Actual     % of Target
East               600                 40               112              280%
North            550                100                23                 23%
Central      1,300                100               139               139%
South            700                  80                 21                26%

These numbers greatly concern me because they either suggest that the FWC really had no idea as to the territorial location of the Florida black bear; or worse, artificially reported a lower kill number so as to avoid even more outrage than currently exists today. As noted in the table above, both the North and South bear management regions only met approximately 25% of their targeted numbers, while the Central region (139%) and East Panhandle region (280%), were so substantially above their targeted numbers.

So, one must wonder if the FWC had any clue whatsoever as to what they were doing. Further, of the 295 bear reported, the FWC confirmed that 207 were killed on Saturday, representing 70% of the total. So one must also ask, why were only 88 bear killed on Sunday? Quite frankly, the inconsistency of these numbers raises a lot of suspicion and statistically, it just does not add up.

According to Politico Florida, there were a total of 3,778 permits issued for this hunt. Subtracting the 207 hunters that got their “bear fix” on Saturday, this left a total of 3,571 hunters still seeking a bear trophy. However, two of the four bear management territories had been closed, so only two remained. Granted, some of those hunters planning to hunt in the closed regions probably opted not to pursue any bear in the North and South regions. After all, their “investment” was a paltry $100 for in-state residents and $300 for out-of-state residents. So the total number of hunters on Sunday probably were less than 3,571.

That said, Sunday’s reported number sounds artificially low. If this number is truly accurate, then we should be thankful that only 88 bears lost their lives. However, I have my doubts. Did the North and South regions truly contain fewer bear than estimated, resulting in less success for the hunters on Sunday? Or did the FWC under-report?

Neither is a good answer for the FWC, but these are the only two plausible explanations. So, if the FWC did not under report, then this raises a red flag question as to the competency of the FWC members…and that may be of a greater concern to the state of Florida residents.

ILLEGAL KILLINGS

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 there is some truth in both of these statements, because both were based upon one critical and important assumption: that hunters would play by the rules. Both of these individuals made these comments based upon a belief and understanding that:

• No baiting would not be involved (Evidence has proved that baiting took place.)

• No killing of mothers with cubs (Politico Florida has analyzed 170 kills thus far and of this total, 102 were female and 28 of those were lactating. Assuming this ratio is representative of the 295 reported total, then it can be assumed a total of 49 lactating females were killed.)

• No killing of cubs over 100 pounds. (Eight of the 170 were less than 100 pounds; and again using the same ratio for the 295 bear kills reported by the FWC, cubs killed is estimated to be approximately 14.)

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Excluding the estimated 63 illegal kills of lactating females and cubs less than 100 pounds, the total number of legal bears killed would be about 232. This number is still significantly higher than the 183 estimated by Ms. Eggeman; however, this does not consider the amount of baiting that apparently existed. And based upon the rapid pace of bears killed on Saturday, there is little doubt that a number of hunters had begun baiting days, if not weeks ahead of the hunt.
The fact of the matter is that had the hunters strictly played by the rules, the carnage would likely have been less. However, this continues to be the problem with the rationalization of hunters being touted as conservationists. Before we can even have an honest debate about this statement, there are a number of assumptions that must be made. Those assumptions are that hunters follow the rules; that honest governments collecting the revenue actually invest this into conservation programs (rather than pocketing the money); and that hunters truly target the oldest and the weakest. The reality is that none of these assumptions are true; and until they are, this will remain a moot discussion.

UNACCOUNTED FOR

On Saturday, a Kayaker sadly discovered a dead bear cub floating in the Suwannee River, a previously unreported casualty of this disaster of a bear hunt. So, let’s discuss these additional casualties and long term impact of this hunt.

Interestingly enough, some protestors of the bear hunt included those that traditionally hunt with dogs, referred to as “hounding”; and they actually view “still hunting” as unethical. Now, many will argue that hounding is equally unethical, however they do make one valid point. Under hounding, the dogs chase the bear up the tree. And from this angle, the hunter can determine the sex of the bear, whether she is lactating, the approximate weight; and the bear is unlikely to suffer as the shooting accuracy is much greater. In other words, it is less likely that an injured bear might escape, only to suffer and succumb to his injuries days or weeks later.

It could be argued that had hounding been implemented, there would have been fewer lactating mothers and cubs killed; and fewer injured bears yet to be found. The problem is, no one knows how many of those casualties may still exist in the wild. I would assume that hunters are required to report any bear shot but not found to the FWC. However, it is questionable whether this rule was followed or not.

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 assumed 49 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 123 orphaned cubs.

However, 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, there must be an assumption that the mortality rate of an orphaned cub is substantially higher than one 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 certainly less than 85%.

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Additionally, within the last week, there has been an increase in bear sightings in residential neighborhoods, which of course, was completely expected by everyone; with apparent exception of the FWC. There are two reasons for this.

One, the young orphaned bears do not have the same level of foraging experience of 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 mother nature had intended for these bear to have the best chance of survival.

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. And even the FWC has noted: “Bears 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 quite frankly, many now associate the forest with the carnage that took place last weekend; and now view the residential areas as safer environments. Unfortunately, this will result in further human – bear conflict, and an increase in bear fatalities through future vehicle collisions.

Additionally, the Politico Florida report indicated that 102 of the 170 bear killed were female. Again, using that ratio and applying to the 295 reportedly killed, this equates to a total number of female bear killed to be approximately 177. With an average of 2.5 cubs per litter, this means that there will be about 450 fewer bear cubs born in 2016…and 2017…and 2018. Simply put, any hunt will always have long-term negative implications of future population growth.

So, the official tally provided by the FWC is 295 bears. For reasons already addressed in this article, this figure appears to be suspiciously and artificially low. Add the unaccounted bears that were injured but never found, increase in orphaned cub mortality, 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 that answer is, it is significantly higher than the original target of 320 bear.

A HUNT WITH NO EXPLANATION

Perhaps the greatest anger, outrage and frustration of this bear hunt was in the fact that the FWC never provided an adequate explanation of the hunt in the first place. The Editorial Board of the News-Press.com labeled this hunt as “poorly conceived, poorly coordinated, poorly conducted and the end result was embarrassing for Florida.”

There is no question this is a black spot on the state of Florida. And because this hunt was conducted only three years after the Florida black bear was removed from the threatened species list, with no indicators of over-population issues, no reports of starving bear, an ample food supply and only a handful of isolated incidents of bear attacking humans (with most of those proven to be provoked by humans or human carelessness), this made national as well as international news.

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WHAT WENT WRONG

It would be simpler and easier to address what went right; because in truth, nothing went right, except that the FWC mercifully called a TKO after the second day of the hunt. However, most of the “wrongs” have already been covered in detail in this article, and the myriad of other articles that are now circulating. So “What Went Wrong” will consist of a simple list.

• The FWC consists of real estate developers, attorneys, ranchers and hunters. Not a single commissioner has experience in conservation or biology, and any on the job education obtained as commissioner has been offset by their conflicts of interest. The reality is that the majority of these commissioners would benefit financially if there were no Florida black bear, if there were no Florida Panther, and no other wildlife to stand in their way. Simply put, decisions made by the FWC are made to benefit the FWC commissioners and not the residents of Florida, and they are using the hunters as their pawns.

• 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 of the black bear.

• Seventy five percent of Florida residents were opposed to this hunt; yet the FWC ignored that 75% of the population, and chose to side with a small minority of the hunting community.

• The FWC choose to move ahead with this hunt before final bear counts were even completed. The completion date was targeted for 2016. Why couldn’t the FWC wait one additional year and establish solid counts of the bear population, then make a decision?

• 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 put themselves in a vulnerable position that, with a guaranteed two day hunt, the bear population could have been decimated beyond recovery.

• The $100 in-state permit fee and $300 out-of-state permit fees were so low, it failed to generate any significant revenue that truly could have been invested in bear conservation efforts. While many may believe $376,000 is a significant amount of money, it really is not. Charging $2,000 for in-state residents and $3,000 for out-of-state residents, and limiting the number of permits to 2,000 would have generated $5,000,000 in revenue (assuming an equal number of in-state and out-of-state residents). This is real money and could have gone toward a bear proof trash can subsidy program, further education of residents in bear country, and investment in over-passes or under-passes, allowing bear and panthers safe haven and access over busy highways.

• Additionally, more expensive permitting tends to draw in a more experienced hunting crowd. Because they are more experienced; they are less likely to shoot lactating mothers and less likely of shooting cubs. And if there are any ethics to be found in the hunting community, it certainly is more likely to come from the experienced hunters.

• By allowing an unlimited number of hunters, a compacted hunting period, and a two day guarantee, the FWC virtually assured themselves 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. This would have ensured that both the Eastern Panhandle and Central Florida bear counts remained in check. As it happened, the number of bears killed in the Eastern Panhandle were nearly triple the target and bears killed in the Central region exceeded that target by 40%.

• 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 bear 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 bears that were creating the human-bear conflict in the first place

SO WHAT DID WE LEARN?

In the movie Burn After Reading, the final scene captured a conversation between the CIA Superior and one of his officers. The CIA Superior posed the question “What did we learn Palmer?” to which Palmer answered “I don’t know sir.” The Superior responded back “ I don’t bleeping know either. I guess we learned not to do it again.” The officer’s only response was “Yes sir”, to which the Superior commented “I’m bleeped if I know what we did.”

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 disaster of a bear hunt, I only hope that the FWC will bow to the will of the people…and to common sense…and to intelligent conservation and also never have this hunt again.

However, this assumes that the people making the original decision to hold this hunt in the first place have now developed the knowledge and intelligence not to repeat this mistake. Unfortunately, the only way to ensure that this does not happen again would be to remove the entire Commission, and appoint members without conflicts of interest, and with the proper backgrounds and education necessary to make decisions that protect Florida’s wildlife and not destroy it.

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