Will Florida become the next bear hunting state?

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This week officials in the Sunshine State will be closer to deciding whether Florida will have its first open season on black bears in 21 years.

At the turn of the century, with most of Florida unsettled, it was believed that bears numbered upwards of 11,000 across the state. Then by 1974, the state listed the bear as threatened with populations estimated as low as 300 animals. At that time, the FWC limited the bear hunt to just three counties, typically harvesting under 50 animals per year, before eliminating it altogether twenty years later.

Taken off the hunting schedule by the Florida Wildlife Commission in 1993, the state's population of these ordinarily docile animals has ballooned. By 2002-- the date of the latest census-- state biologists estimated the herd had grown to over 3,000 animals.

While no official census has taken place since then, it is estimated that these stale numbers have taken off. For instance, according to the latest FWC Bear Management Plan bear calls have gone up more than 400 percent in the past decade and human-bear encounters are at an all-time high. The latter is likely due to many areas reaching the biological carrying capacity of their natural resources, forcing animals to search for food elsewhere. This puts Florida bears on the roam into residential areas.

As they are moving further in search of food, they are more likely to be found on roadways. This is evidenced by figures from FWC that cite just 35 bears were killed in vehicular incidents on Florida roads in 1992, while twenty years later in 2012 a staggering 285 were (nearly the entire population level in 1974!).

Worse, they are becoming more aggressive. Since 1976, there have been only 16 known bear attacks in the state. However, many of these have been in recent months to include four serious attacks in the past year. In all of these, suburban homeowners were out walking in their neighborhoods and encountered aggressive females in search of food.

In January, FWC agents brought down a 740-pound monster black bear caught raiding trashcans in a residential neighborhood. This is notably about three times the size of a typical bruin and is a state record for the species.

All this had led to the FWC Commissioners to look at a draft plan this week to put the bear back on the hunting schedule. To be discussed at this week's meeting, the plan includes having to obtain a $100 resident, $300 nonresident special use permit (bear tag) to participate in a season that would run between 2-7 days in October. It would allow the sportsman to harvest one animal, of over 100-pounds (no females with cubs) by bow, muzzleloader, rifle, handgun, or shotgun in the open areas. It will be a no dog/no bait hunt in its current form.

By taking the 2002 population estimate (which many agree has been far surpasses), calculating a 20 percent harvest limit and subtracting the average number of bears killed by cars, FWC figures that as many as 275 animals can be culled from the population in four of the seven known herds.