Responding to an increasing number of human-bear conflicts, including some attacks, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission plans to consider legalizing bear hunting at its Wednesday meeting in Jacksonville.
We’re not opposed to bear hunts being allowed if research shows it would not harm the state’s population, but to do so now as a response to residents’ concern about bears would be a travesty.
Hunting will do nothing to reduce the bear problem — unless the commission plans to allow hunting in subdivisions, something homeowners are unlikely to favor.
The hunting likely would take place in remote woodlands. The bear conflicts are occurring in subdivisions that have been built near wilderness areas. So bear hunts are not likely to protect the public. Indeed, they could drive more bears toward suburban areas where hunting does not occur.
New Jersey attempted to deal with bear complaints by reviving bear hunts. It achieved nothing. After five years of hunts, New Jersey bear numbers are down by 20 percent, but the number of nuisance complaints are still on the rise.
Moreover, Florida game biologists are still conducting research on bear numbers around the state. Commissioners should await the research’s completion before considering hunts. Allowing hunting prematurely could endanger the bears’ continued revival.
The commission deserves credit for pulling the Florida black bear back from the edge of extinction. Thirty years ago, the state probably had less than 500 bears; now there may be more than 3,000. But the bears are mostly concentrated in seven areas, and their health varies dramatically. For instance, a survey in 2002 found about 1,000 bears in the Ocala-St. Johns River area, but only 20 in the Chassahowitzka River area, where the bears could be quickly wiped out.
The high number of bear-human conflicts merit action (more than 6,000 complaints in each of the last three years). But commissioners should remember attacks remain rare, with the commission reporting three last year, including the serious mauling of a Seminole County woman in her garage. According to the game commission, 16 people have been injured by bears since 1976, and in seven of those cases individuals sought to interact with the bear.
Conflicts are on the rise primarily because subdivisions have been built in and near bear habitat, and the bears quickly learn to target trash cans, bird feeders and such for food. Some misguided residents even feed bears. The result? Bears lose their fear of humans and come to associate them with food, a dangerous situation for everyone in the vicinity.
On this front, game commission staff offers some sensible steps that would likely have immediate benefits:
Among them, expand availability of bear-resistant trash cans and work with local governments on ordinances that require their use. Local officials should never allow development in bear country without mandating the use of bear-proof trash cans.
Urge lawmakers to make laws prohibiting the feeding of wildlife more realistic. At present, illegally feeding wildlife is a second-degree misdemeanor, but prosecutors understandably can be reluctant to pursue a criminal charge. The staff proposes making the first offense noncriminal, with a $100 fine, something that would get people’s attention but not involve the criminal-justice system. A second offense would be a second-degree misdemeanor. The penalty would advance to a first-degree misdemeanor for a third offense and a third-degree felony for the fourth.
And notably, the staff proposes allowing homeowners to use paintball guns, bear spray and other non-lethal techniques to scare bears off their property. The commission would also work with local law enforcement officials on such “hazing” actions. Of course, the commission also would continue removing nuisance bears.
Such steps would be far more effective in reducing human-bear conflicts and making bears fear humans than allowing hunting in a faraway wilderness area.
There is nothing wrong with the commission considering a limited bear hunting season. But at this point, it diverts attention from more effective responses to the nuisance bear problem.