Photo: Tory Kallman/Shutterstock

Florida Does Not Have a Bear Problem, It Has a People Problem

Florida Activism
by Shelby Huff Nov 8, 2015

298 bears were killed in Florida last week — over a two day period.

The state issued its first hunt in 21 years originally to stabilize expanding bear populations and later approved it after an increasing amount of human-bear interactions in Central Florida. The hunt was scheduled to last one week, with a cap of 320 bears. 3,778 permits were sold, more than the estimated bears throughout the state.

It’s against Florida’s laws to not take the meat from a felled bear home. Though the hunt allowed for hunting of any bear that weighed at least 100 pounds, the typical size of a yearling cub. That also means that sows, mother bears, were fair game. FWC estimates that the hunt left about 300 cubs orphaned.

Florida has seen a boom in its bear population since the 1970s, when their numbers were down to a few hundred, raising fear of extinction. The bears have rebounded over the years, thanks to legal protection and habitat preservation. Before last weekend, it was estimated that about 3,500 roamed the state. But the bears aren’t the only creatures booming in population. Florida’s human residents have gone from 7 million in 1970 to 20 million today. More people bring more development, which spells smaller habitats for those bears. With less space, less natural food sources, and more human interactions, it’s inevitable that some bears will become habituated to human presence, learn to associate it with garbage or food, or lose their natural fear of people in general. And over the last 45 years, that’s exactly what has happened. But habitat can’t rebound like a population. Once an area is developed, there is no turning back.

Florida black bears, a sub-species of the more common American Black Bear, were listed as an endangered species up until only three years ago, in 2012. They’re one of Florida’s largest conservation success stories, which is why this hunt was so controversial. Many believed it was entirely too soon to hunt a species so recently listed as endangered.

But another largely controversial issue was the lack of regulation of this hunt. It was too fast, too aimless, and too easy to hunt bears accustomed to human presence, used to cameras being pointed at them, not guns. Bears can be legally hunted in 27 states. Regulated hunting has contributed to conservation for a long, long time. It won’t push bears into extinction; in fact, regulated hunting benefits a species’ population. But hunts like these use an unnecessary tactic whose goals could be achieved in more humane ways. With so many interactions, it has been suggested a more effective method may be targeting individual problem bears. In other words, hunting bears in the woods will not reduce problems with bears in neighborhoods. As long as development encroaches and trash is unsecured, the conflicts will continue.

And you can’t blame those bears for following their noses. The problem here is not bears. Their sense of smell is 1000 times stronger than ours. They are largely elusive and, although curious, they want nothing to do with people. We’ve encroached on their land and they are simply trying to find enough food to sustain themselves. The headlines read that bears are struggling to coexist with humans in fragmented habitats, but it should read the other way around. We do not have a bear problem. We have a people problem. Bear management needs to change. Our perspective need to change. They need our respect and understanding, not our fear. Educating the public about bear behavior and garbage and food management would be more effective than aimlessly hunting around the state.

Our only means cannot be to just kill them. Though bears are among the most adaptable and resilient animals on this planet, they are also among the slowest reproducing. We are in their backyard, one that they’ve lived in long before we arrived here. Let this hunt be a lesson, not just for Florida, not just for black bears, but for all wildlife struggling to coexist with humans worldwide. If we want them around for future generations, we need our actions to represent long-term solutions, and that begins with respecting their needs as a species.

Florida will have a complete bear count in 2016, when they will continue researching and surveying for next year’s planned hunt. Without a true bear count, many protesters believe it was entirely too early to have this hunt, which means that it’s also way too early to think about having another.

Back in 2012, when the bears were delisted as endangered, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s chairman stated that their population was thriving, that it was a success story, but that there is still a lot of education they need to do.

And that is still true today.

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