Updated Sunday at 9:40 p.m. A total of 295 bears were reported killed in the first two days of the hunt. That's close to the number officials hoped to cull from Florida's estimated population of 3,000 bears. The remaining four days of the hunt have been called off.
Florida is poised to open a sport hunting season on black bears this Saturday. It's the first such season in 21 years. And as nearly 3,000 recipients of special bear tags ready their rifles, controversy surrounds the occasion.
A handful of other states use hunting seasons to control black bear populations, but conservationists wonder whether it's necessary in Florida. The influx of people to the Sunshine State has already made the habitat for the iconic Florida panther so fragmented that the big cat’s prospects for survival are bleak.
“In a state that has seen such explosive human population growth, the bisection of so much habitat means that any wide-ranging apex predator is going to have difficulty making a living in that matrix of development,” says Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.
Yet in Florida—the third most populous state in the nation, with 20 million residents—bear numbers over the last few decades have surged along with the human population.
Why Is the Hunt Happening Now?
Fewer than 300 black bears roamed Florida in the early 1970s—down from the 11,000 that are thought to have been there when Spanish explorers arrived at the end of the 15th century. In 1974, the state listed black bears as a threatened species in the state. Twenty years later, hunting was completely halted.
The population rebounded, and bears were removed from special state protection in 2012. Now wildlife officials say 3,000 or more bears inhabit the state’s forests and swamps. Earlier this year, on a narrow vote of state wildlife officials, a hunting season was approved to manage the population.
Barring any last-minute legal action, as many as 320 bears could be taken in the six-day hunt.
Do the Bears Pose a Danger to Humans?
Between 1990 and 2014, there were 49,000 total bear incidents statewide. Incidents include encounters at close range, property damage, and perceived safety hazards. The average number of run-ins over the last three years was four times greater than it was a decade earlier. On top of that, there’s been a handful of maulings. The trend is only expected to continue.
Collisions with vehicles account for about 200 bear deaths in Florida annually, plus many "conflict bears" have been removed after getting into trash, causing property damage, or menacing people.
Unlike more rural states, Florida has few places to relocate these conflict bears. One study suggests that almost 70 percent of relocated bears leave the area where they were released and half of all relocated bears return to the very kind of behavior that caused them to be moved. Wildlife officials have euthanized many problem bears.
Some see a fall hunt as a win-win because problematic bears may be removed by eager hunters and bear populations in some areas will be thinned.
Who Hunts Bears?
National Geographic reached out to half a dozen Florida bear hunters, but none wanted to comment on the record. One said he was concerned he would be harassed by anti-hunting activists if his identity were revealed. And then there's Brad McNaughton, co-founder of the Central Florida Bear Hunters Association.
For years, McNaughton has stalked bruins in southern Georgia using dogs. He also goes after alligators and foxes. But when the bear season opens in Florida, he won’t be among the hunters.
“I definitely support the state bringing back a bear season and believe it’s necessary, but I don’t think it’s going to work out as planned,” he says.
McNaughton is worried that any accidents resulting from inexperienced hunters killing young bears or wounding others could cause a backlash. “It’s going to take several years before they work the kinks out and there will be times when it’s not pretty,” he says.
What Else Could Be Done to Control Bears?
“Florida’s strategy to allegedly reduce human-bear conflicts [through hunting] is predicated upon attracting trophy hunters and it’s akin to a crime control strategy that involves shooting generally into a crowd,” Pacelle says.
What the state needs, Pacelle adds, is a surgical approach that identifies conflict areas and, if necessary, targets individual bears instead of sanctioning a general cull with poorly defined objectives.
McNaughton doesn’t entirely disagree. He says that hunting for bears in thick underbrush is difficult, and could impede success, especially for less-skilled hunters. Allowing hunters to use hounds, which chase bears and tree them would be far more effective and allow for more discrimination in which bears are targeted, McNaughton says. Not long ago in southern Georgia, he tracked 20 bears with dogs, killed one, and let the rest go.
Pursuing bears with dogs is controversial as well. It's currently banned in Florida, and so is using food bait to attract bears. Hunters also can’t kill a cub that weighs less than 100 pounds.
How is Florida Reacting to Criticism?
In an statement written to address critics, Nick Wiley, executive director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, acknowledges that a majority of public comments sent to the commission oppose bear hunting.
But he says the bear population needs to be controlled. The department, he notes, doesn’t know for sure if the hunt will result in fewer human-bear conflicts, but it could slow population growth.
Wiley also says opponents of the hunt are trying to characterize it as an opportunity to turn bears into rugs and stuffed taxidermy trophies. He says calling it a trophy hunt is a mischaracterization. It’s against Florida law to not take the meat from a felled bear home.
What’s Next for Bear Hunting Nationwide?
“The attitudes of Americans toward animals are shifting and we got a sense of that with the response to Cecil the lion’s killing last summer,” Pacelle says.
The Humane Society and animal rights allies helped end spring bear hunting and baiting in Colorado. They brought the end of baiting and hounding in Oregon and Washington. Opponents have had success in Massachusetts and they helped convince the California state legislature to ban hunting with hounds. Similar campaigns lost in Idaho and were narrowly defeated in Maine and Michigan.
Pacelle believes the debate over black bear hunting in Florida presages a bigger battle that's about to erupt in the West. Before the end of this year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to announce removal of the Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear population from protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Wyoming, Montana and Idaho will then assume primary management authority and they’ve announced their intent to bring back sport hunting of grizzlies, which hasn’t happened in 40 years.
Even without a legal sport hunt, the Greater Yellowstone region is on pace to lose more grizzlies to run-ins with elk hunters and livestock than any year in the last 20.
“Whether you are talking black bears in Florida or grizzlies in Wyoming, the first resort for management shouldn’t be shooting them and calling it sound management,” Pacelle says. “Are we really solving problems or creating new ones?”
Todd Wilkinson is an environmental journalist. His most recent book is Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek: An Intimate Portrait of 399, the Most Famous Bear of Greater Yellowstone, with photographer Thomas D. Mangelsen. Follow him on Twitter.