Important facts you need to know about black bear conservation in Florida
Numerous recent articles and editorials have addressed the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s (FWC’s) bear management program. Much of the writing has focused on the proposal to reinstate limited bear hunting in Florida. FWC staff and Commissioners welcome and respect the diversity of opinions, questions and input regarding this proposal, but some of the writing has including false or misleading information. I offer this document to provide a factual perspective on FWC’s comprehensive approach to bear management and the proposed bear hunting season.
Some articles have suggested there is a lack of sufficient scientific information to support a limited bear hunt or that the hunt would be too soon after removing black bears from the state threatened species list. FWC biologists have been researching and monitoring Florida black bears for decades. Bear populations declined to low levels through the 1970s and early ’80s but then began a strong recovery. In 2002, FWC conducted a scientific population survey estimating the statewide population at approximately 3,000 bears. The scientific data from this survey provided sufficient basis for removing the black bear from the state threatened species list back in 2002. Instead of pursuing reclassification at that time, the FWC initiated a multiyear process of developing and fully vetting a comprehensive Bear Management Plan with partners and stakeholders.
Ultimately in 2010, FWC Commissioners adopted a much-improved imperiled species listing and biological status review process, incorporating robust biological and scientific standards from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and rigorous independent scientific peer review by species experts. FWC’s listing program is considered to be an exceptional national model and is highly respected by the conservation community across our nation. The Florida black bear was one of the first species evaluated through this new process, including scientific peer review by bear experts outside FWC. A cornerstone of our new listing program is development and adoption of species management plans, including full involvement of stakeholders and conservation partners, before recommending removal of any species from the state threatened list.
So, yes, in 2012, after taking all of these precautions, considering the strong scientific baseline of bear population recovery and approval of a landmark bear management plan, FWC removed the black bear from the state’s threatened species list. Black bears were clearly on a strong recovery trend for many years and well before they were removed from the state threatened list. To suggest the FWC does not have good scientific information about bear populations would be ignoring the science and other factual information associated with black bear conservation.
Contrary to many inaccurate reports suggesting bear hunting is being proposed in direct response to recent bear attacks and escalating human-bear conflicts, hunting was incorporated into the bear management plan from the very beginning as a population management method. The scientific surveys conducted in 2002 serve as a sound scientific foundation for determining which bear management units (BMUs) are most appropriate for hunting and for establishing responsible harvest objectives. Actually, a number of bear population indicators provide additional points of information to confirm bear populations are continuing to grow beyond the 2002 survey baseline. These indicators include citizen calls/complaints about bears and records of bears killed by vehicles on roads. Even though these indicators suggest population growth, the FWC is taking a conservative approach to recommending harvest objectives by using the 2002 survey data until more recent survey data is available.
FWC is in the process of completing a new statewide bear population survey. In fact, this survey is the most ambitious, extensive and scientifically rigorous bear population survey ever undertaken in Florida. The first phase of this survey project was recently completed, and we now have updated population estimates for two BMUs. In the North BMU anchored by the Osceola National Forest, the black bear population now exceeds 500 bears, more than doubling the estimate from 2002. In the Central BMU anchored by the Ocala National Forest, the population estimate surpasses 1,200 bears, increasing nearly 30 percent over the previous estimate. Updated population information for three additional BMUs is expected next year and will be used to guide management efforts in subsequent years.
There is a misconception circulating that suggests the reinstated bear hunt would be nothing more than a “trophy” hunt. The primary purpose of a limited bear harvest is to manage the bear population while providing carefully regulated hunting opportunities, and the proposed hunt has been aligned accordingly. The term “trophy hunt” is being used to question, if not impugn, the motives of individuals who may choose to participate in a bear hunt. This term is being used erroneously in an attempt to influence public opinion against bear hunting and hunters because polling suggests many Floridians support legal and ethical hunting while the term “trophy hunt” can be used to exploit or confuse the views of the uninformed.
Throughout the history of our nation, hunters have been first and foremost when it comes to supporting and funding wildlife conservation and restoration. This is a well-established fact. Many species of game and non-game wildlife and their habitats have been recovered and are thriving now, thanks to the strong support and leadership from hunters. The term “trophy hunt” is used to suggest hunters are only hunting for a large “trophy” animal to display. Some hunters may wish to display their successful harvest and this is a widely accepted tradition. The vast majority of hunters make every effort to utilize the meat for the table just as they do with harvested deer or wild turkey. In fact, the value of wild game as the original organic food is a culinary trend currently sweeping our nation. It is highly misleading and unfair to mischaracterize the term “trophy hunt” to suggest the proposed bear hunt is anything but legal, ethical, carefully regulated, fair-chase hunting, which has been an honorable part of our national conservation heritage for many generations.
Additionally, proposed FWC rules for bear hunting provide a strong measure of accountability by requiring that every harvested bear must be removed from the field and checked at an FWC staffed check station. Moreover, FWC rules prohibit wanton waste of any harvested game, and any fees derived from bear hunting permits will help fund bear conservation efforts.
It has been reported in some forums that the FWC should not move forward with a limited bear hunting season when a majority of the comments from the public express opposition and concern. The FWC respects everyone’s right to express their views on this issue. In fact we actively seek out and welcome public input and carefully consider all opinions and comments. On the issue of bear hunting, the FWC has actively sought and received input from a large number of people through emails, telephone calls, social media, and public comment on our website, webinars and at two Commission meetings, which included several hours of public testimony.
It is true that a majority of individual comments reflects opposition to bear hunting. While public opinion is an important consideration, we also have a responsibility to weigh the scientific information, professional experience, cost effectiveness and practical feasibility when choosing the most appropriate means to manage sustainable, healthy bear populations with priority concern for human safety and other public interests. Although there is a large amount of opposition to bear hunting, those comments do not offer any viable or effective alternatives to hunting that would help address the real challenge of keeping growing bear populations in proper balance. It is no longer feasible or safe to relocate any significant number of bears.
Additionally, wild bears do not survive well in captivity, and there are very few captive facilities willing to take wild bears and house them for many years.
Reports in the media continue to suggest that bear hunting is being proposed to directly reduce human-bear conflicts although there is no scientific evidence to support the notion that hunting bears in the deep woods will help resolve conflicts. FWC has been very clear from the beginning of the discussion about bear hunting that the primary purpose is to control increasing bear populations, and hunting is one tool in our comprehensive approach to overall bear conservation efforts. The FWC has openly and repeatedly acknowledged that we are not certain how much bear hunting may help minimize conflicts. There are few scientific studies on this matter and none actually have been done in Florida looking at our unique situation. In fact, the studies that are generally referenced were done in northern states or Canada where bear management dynamics are much different from our situation in Florida. Some of these studies have found no link between hunting and reduced conflicts. The state of New Jersey, however, has clearly documented reductions in human-bear conflicts in response to hunting pressure and bear harvest, provided the appropriate level of harvest is sustained.
The notion that bear hunts will only target bears in the “deep woods” that would never cause conflicts is not an accurate characterization of the situation in Florida. Florida is the third most populous state in the nation, approaching 20 million people. There are few areas in Florida where bears are unlikely to encounter people, and bears can range widely over large areas. Many bears that get into conflicts with people live in wooded areas that would be open for hunting but venture for long distances into communities or residential areas when they smell food or garbage and then become conflict bears.
The FWC has made it clear that the most effective measure for minimizing human-bear conflicts is effective management of garbage and food attractants. Once a bear becomes a conflict bear and loses a natural fear of people, the most effective measures are direct hazing or ultimately trapping and euthanasia. We are not certain how many bears may be conditioned to avoid people through hunting pressure or how many current or potential conflict bears may be removed during the hunts. If the proposed hunt is implemented, we should be able to gain insights into the impacts hunting may have on conflict bears.
Bear populations have undoubtedly increased and expanded considerably in large portions of Florida. We have in past years invested and continue today to invest much staff time and resources in working with communities to help people understand what they can do to reduce or avoid bear conflicts, primarily by securing garbage and removing food attractants. We have seen good success in communities that adopt such measures, and these efforts are a major priority in our comprehensive bear management program.
As important as it is to work with communities to address bear related conflicts, this effort does not help us manage growing bear populations. Across the nation in the vast majority of states where black bears are found, hunting has proved to be the most effective and responsible method for managing the growth of bear populations. In fact, most states (32 of 41) that have resident black bear populations allow hunting, including most New England and all Pacific Coast states. Florida is the only state with a population of more than 600 bears that does not utilize bear hunting as a population management tool. It is a scientifically proven fact that bear hunting is biologically sustainable and the most effective tool for maintaining proper balance of bear populations relative to available habitat.
FWC is in full agreement with comments suggesting everyone who cares about black bears in Florida should be increasing bear-wise efforts and working in neighborhoods and communities to achieve sustainable coexistence among people and black bears. The FWC has stressed for many years that these are the highest priorities for addressing human-bear conflicts, and ironically the bear hunting debate has brought more attention and support to this issue than we could have ever generated otherwise. We agree that properly managing garbage, removing food attractants in neighborhoods and blocking bear access to food sources are the best means to minimize conflicts with bears. FWC has focused primarily on this aspect of bear conservation for many years, and we continue to take strong steps in this regard. We are strengthening our rules that prohibit feeding bears, and new legislation was recently adopted to create an improved penalty structure for associated rule violations. Additionally, we have partnered with 12 counties that now offer bear-resistant garbage cans to residents in high human-bear conflict areas, and we are working closely with the waste and recycling industry. We are also empowering private citizens and local landowners to help prevent future bear problems by hazing or scaring bears away through approved methods before they become food conditioned.
It can be a struggle to get our arms around the fact that the Florida black bear represents a great conservation success story in Florida, and we need to transition from saving bears to managing bears. Major challenges come with this kind of success involving such a magnificent wild creature. The level of care, commitment and even respectful disagreement I see from my fellow Floridians tells me that we are up to the challenge, and we will certainly have thriving bear populations well into the future.
Certified Wildlife Biologist
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission