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By Savannah Sherman
Prior to 1974, the Florida black bear was hunted to near extinction, earning the designation of a threatened species under the Florida Endangered Species Act. In 2012, based on the last complete population survey (which was initiated ten years prior), the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) decided that the population of black bears was large enough for the species to be delisted. By 2015, the population had grown large enough that FWC believed it necessary to hold a hunt to manage the species.
It’s Time to Relist the Black Bear
Rule 68A-27.001 of the Florida Administrative Code (F.A.C.) provides that FWC may designate plants and animals as threatened or endangered species based on several factors: reduction in population size, geographic range, population projection, and probability of extinction. Of these factors, population size, geographic range, and population reduction are at issue for the Florida black bear.
Rule 68A-27.001(3)(a) of the F.A.C. specifies various concerns about population size, such as suspected reduction of at least thirty percent over the next three generations. As stated in the FWC 2011 Florida Black Bear Biological Status Review Report (2011 Report), the span of three Florida black bear generations is twenty-four years.
According to FWC, “[o]btaining a reliable population estimate of black bears is challenging.” In 1974, the Florida black bear population sat between 400 and 500. It has since increased to roughly 4000. While this data seems like a positive sign for the Florida black bear, differing population sampling methods and infrequent surveys produce an unreliable picture.
When calculating the size of the population in 2014, FWC included developed areas and other unfavorable land, resulting in a population estimate greater than what the land can actually accommodate. The assumption that an increase in bear population warrants decreased protection is misguided.
Habitat loss was a concern stated in the 2011 report. “Bear populations are centered on large parcels of conserved public lands. However, the predicted loss of non-conserved habitat will be significant and will negatively impact currently occupied bear range and, we inferred, bear numbers.” The 2011 report stated that bear populations are centered on conserved public lands; this is no longer true.
As of 2019, sixty-six percent of the total area occupied by the Florida black bear was privately owned land. This places bear habitats at risk of development. One third of the entire State of Florida is projected to be developed by the year 2070, given current development rates. The Florida black bear is now limited to just eight regions of the state it once occupied entirely. It is therefore critical to conserve habitat now before it is too late.
While FWC’s “Current Management” and “Black Bear Management Plan” outline several conservation efforts, these efforts take a largely optional approach for developers and residents to reduce interactions with bears. FWC’s current efforts do not come close to exhausting alternative remedies that would allow the killing of bears, as stated in Rule 68A-4.009, F.A.C. Since the 2011 Current Management measures, human and bear interactions have increased while bear habitats have shrunk. Without exhaustive measures taken to reduce such interactions, any argument for a hunt is nothing but “bear” bones.
Interactions with Humans
FWC data on bear-related phone calls indicates an increase in calls between 2002 and 2013. In 2003, FWC received 1104 bear-related calls. This number increased each year until it peaked at 6734 in 2013.
FWC points to the decrease in complaints between 2015–16 to demonstrate that the 2015 bear hunt reduced human and bear interactions; however, the bear population was already in decline before the October 2015 hunt. Between 2015–16, when the hunt occurred, the number of complaints fell by five percent. In contrast, between 2017–18, complaints decreased by eight percent without a hunt. This suggests that killing bears is not the most effective way to manage interactions between humans and bears.
An increase in bear-related calls indicates that bears and humans are interacting more frequently. It does not, however, indicate that the bear population is increasing. United States Census data states that Florida’s population increased by over fourteen percent between 2010 and 2020. Housing units increased by almost ten percent in the same time frame. Increased development and, in turn, habitat loss, continue to accompany this population boom. Bears are drawn closer to human populations in search of food. Thirty percent of all bear-related calls between 2002 and 2021 were for bears in trash cans. One solution to human-bear interactions is implementing trash programs to mitigate bear attraction. This should be done exhaustively before authorizing a bear hunt.
Carrying Capacity of the Environment
Deforestation, habitat fragmentation, and urban sprawl all contribute to reducing the amount of food, shelter, water, and mates available to any given bear population, reducing the number of bears that can live in a given habitat. The above factors actually increase human and bear interactions as bears must venture out of their traditional habitats and into populated areas to find the necessities they need to survive.
A Hunt is Not the Answer
Today, FWC is considering another bear hunt, claiming the hunt is necessary for black bear conservation and for decreased human and bear interactions. However, as noted above, the number of core complaints in 2022 is thirteen percent less than the number of core complaints at the time of the last hunt. Since the 2015 hunt, the black bear population has increased by approximately 1000 individuals, while the human population in Florida has increased by over two million. With the latter, exponential land development has consumed our state. Florida does not have a black bear problem; it has an overdevelopment problem.
The 2015 bear hunt in Florida resulted in more than 300 bear deaths. Of those, thirty-eight bears were confirmed to be lactating, and six illegal kills were recorded. There is little reason to believe that a bear hunt today would have different results. If we are serious about protecting humans and bears alike, then our efforts must be focused on reducing interaction by conserving crucial habitat and by implementing measures, such as bear-proof trash cans, to discourage bear incursions into populated areas.