In the forests of Florida, black bears reign supreme.
They spend their days shuffling around the forest floors, their coarse black fur shining under specks of sunlight. The largest mammal in the state, they are the kings of their territory.
They also have a target on their backs.
About 3,500 black bears live throughout seven fragmented regions in the state. The number shows tremendous growth, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission. So beginning Saturday, the hunt is on to thin the population by about 320.
The hunt, which will run from Saturday until Oct. 30, is part of the commission’s overall approach for "conserving and managing" bears.
Others call it murder.
To Julie Watkins, the executive director of Jacksonville-based nonprofit The Girls Gone Green, the hunt will be cruel and it will be bloody.
"On Oct. 24, our great state will go to war with its wildlife."
Angry state residents have protested, petitioned and plead.
Hunters say this was a long time coming.
The commission stands by its decision, recently fielding calls from reporters and referring to its information packets and videos.
The hunt is on, and now the kings may lose the throne.
Black bears are solitary creatures.
Unlike lions, they don’t patrol their kingdom. They’re not territorial. In fact, they don’t interact much with each other.
However, they tolerate one another around food.
"They’re like a big walking stomach," said Dana Karelus, a third-year UF wildlife ecology and conservation doctoral student.
They live in covered areas along rivers and creeks, the 32-year-old said. They’ll spend much of the time in thicker forest, but it also depends on the season and what berries are fruiting. They’ll travel to fulfill their food needs.
Plant matter, berries, fruits and nuts make up 80 percent of black bears’ diet. They graze the forest floor muzzle-first, and they especially love saw-palmetto berries.
The rest of their diet is mostly insects: ants, termites, bees and wasps. Only a small portion comes from meat, and usually it’s a raccoon or opossum.
Females tend to weigh 130 to 180 pounds, while the males keep to a hefty 250 to 350 pounds, she said.
Yet, they’re quick and are rarely heard sauntering through the thick forest understories.
But unbeknown to them, they’ve always been watched.
Bear populations reached a low of 300 to 500 in the 1970s, and the wildlife commission kept a watchful eye.
Nick Wiley, a certified wildlife biologist and the executive director of the commission, broke the process down in an editorial-like news release addressed to Florida residents.
In 2002, the commission conducted a scientific population survey that estimated Florida was home to about 3,000 bears. Research continued before seeking reclassification.
The commission adopted an imperiled species listing and biological status review process in 2010, which Wiley wrote included in-depth biological and scientific standards from the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
The Florida black bear was the first species to be evaluated through it. The commission found the bears’ rate of increase required a management plan.
"FWC’s listing program is considered to be an exceptional national model and is highly respected by the conservation community across our nation," Wiley said.
Noting a strong recovery trend, the commission removed the black bear from the state’s threatened species list in 2012.
"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," he said.
Seven Bear Management Units across the state were created as part of the commission’s 10-year management plan to define bear population locations and "effectively manage and conserve Florida black bears."
Of the seven, four are open to bear hunting: south, central, north (which includes Baker, Columbia, Duval, Hamilton, Nassau, Suwannee and Union counties) and the east panhandle.
Residents of these regions began to see the population growth for themselves for the first time.
Searching For Another Way
Myriam Parham has always seen the Florida black bears.
She said she feels like she’s been fighting to help keep bear hunting from growing since 1991.
The president and co-founder of Florida Voices for Animals, Parham said she’s not satisfied with the results.
"As the largest land mammal that is said to made a comeback...3,000 is just not a viable population, and they’re too fragmented," Parham said.
Parham was one of about 100 who rallied against the bear hunt last month in downtown Orlando.
"Too cute to shoot," one sign read. "Killing is not conservation," said another. "Killer commissioner Lisa Priddy" was on at least two.
Julie Watkins grabbed the lectern, her blond hair pulled back into a ponytail and blue eyes fiery with passion.
She said more than 30,000 citizens reached out to oppose to the "trophy hunt," but it only took seven on a commission to seal the fate of hundreds of black bears.
"Officials have given hunters permission to take out their bow and arrows and their guns and murder hundreds of bears who have as just as much a right to be here as we do."
Their prized sense of smell came up often. Their huge olfactory nerve helps them detect scents from about a mile away, making their noses among the most powerful.
It also leads them to humans and their garbage — the main issue at hand.
Bryan Wilson, the Central Florida coordinator for the Animal Rights Foundation in Florida, spoke out at the rally about how bear sightings are more common than ever.
"But the overwhelming amount of these bear sightings are not, ‘Oh, it’s going to hurt me.’ It’s, ‘Oh, there’s a bear.’ And that’s what Florida is about," he said.
He said commission is confusing hunting and conservation, and its role should work for safety of the wildlife and to ensure the public and the wildlife co-exist peacefully.
He said people come to Florida to see its wildlife.
"Seminole County has recently rebranded itself as Orlando North to draw in more tourists, but I know I wouldn’t want my family to go on a hike in the woods and see guy hauling a bear carcass with a huge hole in it or an arrow sticking out of a bear’s head while the cubs are dragged behind the bears."
Chuck O’Neal, the founder of Speak Up Wekiva, said state forests have been depleted of their natural food supplies, which pushes the black bears into suburbia.
Waste management and eliminating harvests of palmetto berries on state lands would benefit bears and improve human safety, he said.
"You should have all your science in place before you hold your first hunt in 21 years, especially when you’re dealing with an icon animal," he said in regard to the commission.
Former state Sen. Lee Constantine (R-Fla) addressed the crowd about his initiative to give everyone west of Interstate 4 bear-proof trash cans.
"A solution is not to kill 300 bears," he said. "A solution is to find a way to allow the bear-human contacts to be minimized. Bears will not come into neighborhoods if we take away the attractants."
The trash cans will eliminate 95 percent of bear-human contact, he said, citing the commission.
"As we take away their food supply, we take away their habitat for human use. We need to make sure we’re not also giving them something to come into our neighborhoods, like putting a Burger King in your front door."
This will send them back to the woods.
"We need to find them habitat, and we need to do everything we can as humans, as the protectors of this earth," Constantine said. "We need to find every way we can to protect those bears and every other wildlife."
Diane Eggeman, the commission’s director of Hunting and Game Management Division, is available on your computer to answer your questions about the weeklong bear hunt.
In a 5-and-a-half-minute video released Tuesday, she stands in front of a log cabin in a powder-blue-collared Florida Wildlife Commission top.
"The bear hunt is part of FWC’s overall approach for conserving and managing bears. The purpose of the hunt is to stabilize bear populations in four of the seven bear management units of Florida."
She said the number of safeguards in place make this a limited and conservative hunt. Dogs and baiting are not allowed.
According to the commission, hunters may pursue bears with bows and crossbows, muzzleloading guns, rifles, pistols, revolvers and shotguns.
It’s also a short season, Eggeman said. If the harvest objective is met in any given Bear Management Unit, the bear season in that unit will close. Otherwise, it will run until Friday.
"We will be monitoring the harvest and the season on a day-to-day basis," she said.
The hunt can take place on all private and some public lands, and all hunters must check their bear within 12 hours at any of the established bear-check stations.
Beginning Saturday, updated information on unit closures will be made available every day of the season around 9 p.m. on the website and social media. The Bear Hunting Hotline also will be open.
Each unit’s harvest objective was determined starting with the most current population estimate for that unit, Eggeman said. A 20 percent mortality rate was needed to offset birth rates. That was taken into account as well other mortality factors, like vehicle collisions.
According to the commission, the bag limit is one bear per person per season. Bears must weigh at least 100 pounds to be harvested. A bear with cubs present may not be harvested.
Relocating is unsuccessful, Eggeman said. They come back and risk bringing conflict to new areas. She said hunting is a good tool to stabilize populations because it’s really the only effective tool there is for managing these growing populations on a large scale.
As of press time, almost 3,000 bear permits have been sold, and fees will go toward bear conservation efforts. Permits went on sale Aug. 3 and will stop at 11:59 p.m. tonight.
Joseph Roberts, the ranch manager and president of Roberts Ranch Game Reserve in Palatka, said he thought the hunt was a great idea from the beginning because of overpopulation. He said 70 to 80 bears wander into his 7,000-acre property.
All 18 of his members have permits to participate in this hunting season. Many of them have been threatened by bears.
"(The black bears) lost fear of humans as a predator," he said. "They’re standing their ground more and more."
Roberts said he thinks the commission is being conservative with its numbers and with its hunting procedures. Black bears are illusive and hard to hunt even without the guidelines.
"I’ll be lucky to get two to three off my property," he said.
There isn’t enough food for the bears, he said. Without a recurring hunting season, there will be a bunch of starving animals.
"(The protestors) are a bunch of tree-hugging hippies who don’t understand that things need to be managed."
Most people would assume that Eric Hellgren would oppose the bear hunt.
A professor and the chair of the UF wildlife ecology and conservation program, he studied bears in his doctoral program at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Outside his office is a framed photo of a bear.
But in fact, Hellgren supports the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission and its decision.
"I keep track of things with bears because it’s been a part of my life for 30 years."
He said the commission has a comprehensive, multi-faceted plan, and hunting is a standard management strategy. It will also help slow down bear-human conflict.
"The FWC is dedicated to wildlife," he said. "Everyone has the same objective: conserving, not simply preserving."
Fighting Against the Odds
Some tried to stop it, but they failed.
Chuck O’Neal, the founder of Speak Up Wekiva, filed a lawsuit July 31 asking for a temporary injunction to the hunt. It failed Oct. 1 after Leon Circuit Judge George Reynolds III ruled the commission’s methodology rational.
Today, activists around the state will rally in solidarity against the bear hunt.
Gainesville resident Julie Cassel said she has been involved in the fight against the hunt since the beginning. She volunteered to organize the city’s rally, which is today from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. on the corner of Main Street and University Avenue. All posters and literature will be provided; however, she said she thinks people will want to bring their own.
"People want to bring their own to express their own issues (with the hunt)," she said. "I haven’t seen (people) this passionate for a long time. There’s people not sleeping at night."
Cassel herself is " totally heartbroken" about the start of the hunt and has been involved in many protests and events against it since June. She said she’s very involved in the community and has contacts in various environmental, political and animal rights groups. She mainly used social media to get the word out and expects 75 percent of the 100 who clicked "Join" on the Stop the Bear Hunt Rally — Gainesville Facebook page to attend.
She’ll be in a group of volunteers from the Stop the Bear Hunt movement at the Micanopy checkpoint Saturday between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m., but they will have to check their emotions at the entrance.
"We’re instructed not to express our opinion," she said. "We’re monitoring to make sure the count is confirmed as soon as possible."
She said some of the volunteers plan to take pictures of the hunt for the future.
"The FWC bear hunting is just ridiculous. It’s not going to be good."
The Time Has Come
The protesters prepare by mounting their posters.
The hunters prepare by loading their rifles.
The bears prepare for just another day.
The hunt is on — and it begins Saturday.
- Extra methods
- On public land, no feeding of game is allowed.
- On private land, the hunter and the bear must be more than 100 yards from a game feeding station when feed is present. Feed may not contain processed foods other than commercial deer or hog feed in any of the open bear management units.
Extra Check-Station Requirements
- Official bear check stations are located so they are approximately 30 miles from most hunter locations
- Check station operators will be collecting information about harvested bears:
- A bear tag will be fastened to the harvested bear’s hide
- Hunters will be asked to complete a survey
- Data collected from this year’s hunt will help record any recommendations for changes in future years.
Other Regulations Governing the Hunt
- Regulations dictate no wasting of any game that has been wounded or killed by a person while hunting.
- Waste means to intentionally fail to make a reasonable effort to retrieve a wounded or killed animal and render it for consumption or use
- Most hunters make every effort to use the meat to eat just as they do with harvested deer or wild turkey.
- Fun fact: The value of wild game as the original organic food is becoming more popular.
- The sale (includes trade, barter and exchange) or purchase of bear meat or parts is prohibited.
Hunters’ Role in Wildlife Conservation
- Hunters have been the strongest advocates of wildlife restoration and efforts to manage sustainable wildlife populations since the beginning of the hunter-led conservation movement in the 19th century.
- Hunters take pride in safe, legal, responsible, fair-chase hunting. Hunters are guided by a hierarchy of ethics, which include obeying all applicable laws and regulations, attaining and maintaining the skills necessary to take game as quickly and humanely as possible, and exercising a personal code of behavior that reflects favorably on the abilities and sensibilities of hunters.
License and Permit Requirements
- Hunters need a hunting license (unless exempt) and a bear permit ($100 for residents; $300 for nonresidents).
- Everyone who is interested in hunting bears must obtain the bear permit including those exempt from hunting license requirements (e.g., youth, seniors, people with disabilities).
- Those hunting on a wildlife management area will also need a management area permit (but it is not required on Apalachicola River Wildlife and Environmental Area and Tyndall Air Force Base).
- Depending on the area and when the taking of bear is allowed, hunters may also need a quota permit, and/or an archery or muzzleloading gun season permit.
- Hunters 16 years of age and older must have completed a state certified Hunter Safety course before they can buy a hunting license (and bear permit) that allows them to hunt by themselves.
Source: Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission
Julie Watkin, the executive director of Jacksonville-based nonprofit The Girls Gone Green, spoke out against bear hunting in a rally she organized in downtown Orlando last month. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission's statewide hunt begins Saturday and will run through Sunday. Its goal is to harvest 320 bears to manage the population.