On Saturday, October 24, 2015, and less than three years after being delisted as a threatened species, the Florida black bear will once again be fighting for his life; and perhaps a survival of the species. This will be the first legal hunt of the black bear since 1994, when the Commission of Game & Fresh Water Fish (GFC) closed all remaining areas for bear hunting. And at that point in time there were approximately 1,250 black bears remaining in the state.
Photo from Sierra Club Florida
Thanks in part to this hunting ban and other conservation efforts, the population has recovered to over 3,000 bears in six core areas (Eglin, Apalachicola, Osceola, St. Johns and Big Cypress) and two remnant areas (Chassahowitzka and Glades / Highlands). And while recovery rate of this magnitude should be perceived as a great victory for the black bear, the decision by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) may succeed in returning the black bear population back to those pre-recovery levels.
Beginning Saturday and continuing for seven days until the following Friday, the FWC has approved the killing of up to 320 bears in four primary geographic areas, although the FWC will not be tracking total kills until after the weekend and has guaranteed the hunt will last at least two full days. Therefore, the likelihood is great that the total bears killed will greatly surpass the 320 bear objective.
Including historic mortality rates, this would essentially represent 20% of the population. (The FWC study “Florida Black Bear Management Plan” concluded that a black bear subpopulation of at least 200 could absorb and survive up to a 23% annual mortality rate and still sustain the species.)
As referenced above, in 2012, the FWC completed a lengthy study entitled “The Florida Black Bear Management Plan” (The Plan); with the objective of this study to “maintain sustainable black bear populations in suitable habitats throughout Florida for the benefit of the species and the people.” To reach this goal, the study determined that there needs to be at least one subpopulation of at least 1,000 individuals and smaller subpopulation areas of at least 200 bears each.
The North and Central estimates referenced in the chart above are based upon 2014 counts, while the East Panhandle and South counts have not been updated since 2002; but were estimated, based upon the concluded increase in the North and Central counts. However, Nick Wiley, Certified Wildlife Biologist and Executive Director for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission admitted that the FWC really doesn’t know if 3,150 is an accurate number or not.
But to read Nick Wiley’s June 22, 2015 news release, one might conclude that the Florida black bear is running rampant, wild and out of control on Florida’s highway and byways, and causing severe risk and danger to Florida drivers.
This is not to say that a human – bear conflict does not exist. In 2014, the FWC fielded in excess of 6,000 complaint calls from concerned citizens; or about 16 calls per day. And according to the FWC, there were 227 black bear killed in vehicle related accidents in 2014. However, this 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.
And all efforts to date seemingly have followed the FWC goal of delisting and restoring the black bear to healthy levels; and The Plan’s intention to “address these conservation challenges and to ensure that bears will never again need to be listed as a threatened species”.
ETHICS? WE DON’T NEED NO STINKIN’ ETHICS
So, if the bear population can sustain up to a 23% loss in a single year, why the anger and protest by those attempting to stop the hunt? One could easily bring up the ethical aspect of hunting just to hunt. Unfortunately, it seems that this argument never gains any traction because in today’s world, we seem to view life as simply black and white. That is, if it is legal, it is okay; and ethical and moral implications be damned.
The reality is that those individuals that live a life built on an ethical foundation will likely continue to maintain a level of morality. Those that have built their lives on excuses and an ‘unethical act justification’ will always be ethically challenged. Therefore, although this should be a significant consideration against bear hunting, we will unfortunately have to check this one-off the list as non-applicable.
So, if ethical behavior is off the list, this also means compassion, the humane treatment of wildlife, and being a steward of our environment is also off the list. Which would seemingly suggest that we just get this carnage started; to see how much death, destruction and devastation of the black bear population we can actually cause over a 7-day period.
Yet, you may ask that if the FWC has capped the number at about 10% of the total estimated population, how can that cause this gloom and doom scenario? Simple. As of early October, the state of Florida had already issued 2,659 licenses for the right to kill these 320 bears, and nearly enough licenses to kill every black bear in the state. And because the FWC will not even attempt to track or monitor the number of bears killed until after the first two days, the likelihood is that the number of bears killed will far exceed the maximum 320.
And given that these 2,659 hunters are already well aware of this likelihood, we can also assume that there will be few, if any, that wait until Monday or Tuesday for their hunting experience. Rather, they will all descend into bear territory at the same time. So, in addition to the plight of the black bear, I would venture to guess that when you combine 2,659 hunters, an animal that has not been legally hunted in twenty plus years, a contracted timetable and a limit of how many bears that can be killed, there is an added probability of accidental shootings and injuries to hunters as well. However, I assume this would just be chalked up as collateral damage.
A FAILED PLAN
Even those supporters of the bear hunt must surely be scratching their head and questioning why the FWC would implement such a questionable plan. After all, who in their right mind would establish a capped or targeted number, yet not establish parameters to ensure that number would not be exceeded? Two days of open-ending hunting. Come one, come all. Kill as many bears as you can, then we will see if we are at our limit. And keep in mind that it will also take the FWC time to tally the numbers, since there are 33 bear hunt check stations. So while the FWC is in the process of counting the number of Saturday and Sunday kills, bear hunting will continue to operate as normal well into the third day.
Intelligent planning would suggest that if the bear hunt was truly necessary (which remains a question), why would you not spread the hunt over at least three or four weekends, and limit the number of hunters per weekend? The FWC could have auctioned off permits and sold the first weekend permits for a significantly higher amount than $100 for Florida residents and $300 for out –of-state residents, and staggered pricing such that those permits acquired in the fourth or fifth weekend would be discounted.
The idea that the black bear would be hunted in the first place is sad; but all the more so, given that the price on his / her head is such a paltry amount. I would anticipate that in a lottery type scenario, a hunter would gladly pay at least $5,000 for the right to kill a bear that has been protected for the past 20 years. At that price, the State may have raised $10 million in revenue. But, as it stands, they will probably generate about $400,000 (assuming 50% of permits were issued to in-state residents and the other 50% issued to out-of-state residents).
LEGAL BASIS FOR KILLING
So, where does the FWC have the power to authorize such a hunt? Florida Administrative Code 68A-4.009 (i.e. Florida Black Bear Conservation) states:
(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 a practical resolution to the damage, and the Commission is unable to capture the bear.
Therefore, under Florida statutes, the FWC may authorize the killing of bears, only if it “furthers scientific or conservation purposes, which will benefit the survival potential of the species or to reduce property damage caused by bears.” Clearly, this effort has nothing to do with any scientific study, so it must fall under the vague and highly debatable “conservation” argument. However, through my research, I have yet to locate any study that definitively states the black bear population is deemed to be at a level that would require the “management” of the species. In other words, no over-population issue has been introduced that suggests the population needs to be reduced by 320 bears over a single week.
So, is the justification related to “property damage”? And if so, has the FWC determined that there are no non-lethal options that “can provide practical resolution to the damage”? We noted earlier that there were about 6,000 complaint calls made in 2014, with the majority of these calls representing concerned citizens that had either seen a bear in their back yard, or the bear had dumped over a trash can and was rummaging through the garbage. (See chart below.)
However, can that truly be argued as damaging property? And isn’t this a correctable issue that can be accomplished simply by trading out traditional trash cans with bear-proof containers, something the FWC has already been pushing as part of its Education and Outreach program – which is described in the Florida Black Bear Management Plan?
Even the FWC acknowledges on 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 has also acknowledged that “there is no shortage of natural foods in Florida’s forests for bears, they are very opportunistic feeders and are technically omnivores. 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.”
And 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”.
The FWC has been keeping track of incidents where a person has been injured by a bear in the state of Florida since 1976 and they have noted it is a very rare event. And in most cases the bear was acting in a defensive manner protecting itself, its young, or a food source.
Further, the FWC officials have acknowledged the majority of feedback the agency has received is against the hunt (40,000+ calls, letters and emails – 75% of them against the hunt), but they said they have to weigh public opinion versus scientific research. And that they agree with animal rights supporters that the best way to minimize human-bear conflicts is through managing garbage and food attractants, such as utilizing bear-proof trash cans. However, they also indicated that hunting is one tool in their comprehensive approach to curbing the population. Yet, if you review the Florida Black Bear Management Plan, you will find there is no mention of killing the black bear as part of the plan.
Nick Wiley noted that the two attacks on humans in 2013 and the two attacks in 2014 are not prompting bear hunts because they can’t prove they 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.”
Of course, aside from the bears killed during this event, the additional victims of this hunt will be the orphaned cubs. FWC indicated that the hunt is occurring in late October for two reasons. One, it is just prior to winter hibernation; and two, the bear cubs will be old enough to fend for themselves and survive on their own by then. However, according to the FWC website, cubs are normally born in late January to mid-February and the family dissolution period is typically 15 to 17 months.
So, for those cubs born in early 2014, they most likely left their mothers between July and September, and should be fine. However, those cubs born early this year? They are only 8 to 9 months old, and certainly, will have no chance to survive without their mothers whatsoever. Their only hope is that the good-hearted volunteers that plan to scour the woods after the hunt is over, in hopes of finding the cubs. If not, the cubs will simply starve to death.
Photo by Norbert Rosing, National Geographic
What I find humorous is that the 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.”
I laugh because I ask the question, what hunter is going to follow this advice? Would that be the same hunter that seeks to kill the oldest and weakest lion out of conservation’s sake? No, the time is ticking. As soon as the hunter sees something large enough, he’s blasting away. He doesn’t have time to risk another hunter getting to this animal first. (Remember, we will have close to 3,000 hunters running rampant through the forests.)
I find it equally humorous when hunters use the word “harvest”. They talk as if they are going out to pick blueberries or apples. The simple fact is that fruits and vegetables are harvested…animals are killed. Let’s not mince words here. If you are going to kill the animal, say it proudly. You aren’t going to harvest the animal. You aren’t going to take the animal. You are going to kill the animal.
“It’s a mismanaged animal,” said Andrew Moyes, 45, of Fort Lauderdale, who plans to hunt bears on private land near Apopka. “These animals have no fear of humans. If people start taking a few bears, it’s going to change their thought processes. I think it’s actually beneficial to the bears.”
My question to Mr. Moyes is how do you conclude that an animal that has been on the threatened species list for nearly twenty years, has been off the list a total of three years, and with a population that has increased from 1,250 to around 3,000 over that twenty year period is a mismanaged species? And my question to those that would argue that hunting is conservation, why was the black bear on the threatened species list in the first place? Simple…over-hunting. If hunting was not the culprit, then the FWC would have never banned this activity in the first place.
And let’s not talk about hunting as conservation because the revenues will help support the preservation of the Florida black bear. Permits are $100 for in-state residents and $300 for out-of-state residents. Even if every hunter was out-of-state and the 320 bear max was attained; that is less than $1 million in revenue.
The FWC should have significantly upped the price for this hunt; generated millions and millions of dollars which could have been invested in additional wildlife underpasses, more signs, further communication, or perhaps as a subsidy toward the purchase of more bear proof trash cans and dumpsters. This tells me that conservation really was not a consideration in the FWC decision to allow this hunt.
The fact of the matter is that the reason there has been an increase in complaint calls from Florida residents is not that bears are suddenly coming out of the woods and into people’s back yards to eat. The simple fact is that Florida’s population is growing and is now infringing on territory that was bear territory. So, in truth, we are bothering them…they are not bothering us. And hunting bears deep in the woods is not going to prevent them from foraging for food in people’s back yards. As the FWC noted, black bears are smart enough to be lazy.
How many times have you decided to pick up a meal at a fast food restaurant because it was easier and more convenient than going home and creating a meal from scratch? The bears are no different. Why forage for food, when someone has left an unsecured trash can that makes for an easy meal? So, kill off 20% of the bears next weekend; but don’t be surprised when the number of complaint calls increases in 2016.
The challenge of course, is how to deal with the human – animal conflict when the human population continues to grow. The traditional method is to just expand into the territory of wildlife and wildlife be damned. And if humans prefer to live in a world with little wildlife, then there really need not be a further discussion. Just maintain this current strategy and this will happen, and it is happening at a frightening pace.
There is of course ample opportunity to recycle previous developments and to take a brownfield redevelopment approach rather than a greenfield approach. However, that is an article for another time.
The reality from this observer’s point of view is that hunters simply want to hunt. There will be arguments that dance around this issue – arguing that hunting is conservation, or that the black bear population is out of control. But, in truth, hunters simply want the opportunity to hunt something. But because they know they are often negatively viewed by the general public, they will attempt to spin this as if they are doing all of us a favor.
From this writer’s perspective, I admit that there are those unfortunate times when an animal must be killed for conservation or environmental purposes; and those situations arise where there is simply an over-population of that animal. Of course, that over-population is our fault as well – as we either screwed with the eco system (killing too many predators like the wolf or mountain lion), resulting in san over-population of prey animals. Or we have reduced the animal habitat to such a confined space, they have no place else to go and are then deemed as becoming “nuisance” animals because they are infringing on our territory (which was their territory).
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 reality is that the black bear hunt will likely occur next weekend…short of any last-minute miracles. And assuming this hunt occurs, I hope this hunt truly exposes the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission for what it represents and who it represents. The FWC is composed of hunters, developers and ranchers; those individuals with motivations contrary to the protection of wildlife and contrary to conservation ideals.
If the Florida black bear suffers the fate we all fear, we can only maintain the faith and belief that positive change is often born from the ashes of ruin and devastation. But regardless, this will be a sad day for the state of Florida, for Florida residents, and for anyone that loves wildlife.