Don’t mess with the bears.
State fish and wildlife managers that govern hunting and fishing regulations for all sorts of species refused this week to pull the trigger on a bear hunt for fear of a public backlash.
The decision by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission not to hold a bear hunt for at least two years followed three hours of emotional testimony and an hour presentation by staff that showed the adult bear population topped 4,000 with robust reproductive rates and an expanding geographic range in four zones stretching from southwest Florida to the Panhandle.
Still, the most compelling statistic had little to do with ecology and everything to do with public perception, commissioners said. In short, it was a survey suggesting that while 70 percent of Floridians surveyed approved of regulated hunting as a conservation practice, only 48 percent supported bear hunting while 43 percent opposed it.
FWC executive director Nick Wiley said the “the science is rock solid” in support of authorizing a bear hunt but that the agency could not ignore the poll.
“That is troubling. What that tells us is we have more work to do,” he told the seven-member commission. “We’re not ready to go back into hunting season. That’s where we are right now.”
The position angered hundreds of hunters who descended on the rural town of Havana in northwestern Florida to show support for a hunt this year and elicited cheers from scores of bear activists also attending the meeting.
Newton Cook of United Waterfowlers, a hunting organization, chastised the commission for interjecting politics at the expense of scientific data. In doing so, he said the FWC violated its mission to be independent.
“You have the science to back you,” said Cook. “And what do you give us? Politics. Culture. You just gave away your independence.”
But bear advocates insisted the FWC made a justifiable decision.
“We see no reason for another bear hunt,” said Shannon Geis of New Smyrna Beach. “To do so would be to condone a senseless trophy hunt. Which, to us, is unacceptable.”
Opponents of a bear hunt also got good news on Wednesday when the Senate Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee approved a bill (SB 1304), filed by Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando, that would ban bear hunts for a decade in Florida. But it still has two more Senate committee stops in the last 2½ weeks of the legislative session, and the related House bill has not yet been heard in even of its three assigned committees, so the prospects for passage are dim.
A bear hunt has been a lightning rod in Florida conservation circles since a controversial hunt in 2015 that killed more than 300 bears. Since then, nearly 20 municipal governments throughout the state have passed ordinances or resolutions opposing a bear hunt.
The FWC was widely criticized by environmental groups for permitting the 2015 hunt. Among the complaints was what critics said was a lack of data to support the hunt.
In Thursday’s meeting, however, Thomas Eason, the director of the FWC’s Division of Habitat and Species Conservation, sought to leave no doubt the agency’s research and data on trends in the state’s bear population was thorough and exhaustive.
“From an extinction perspective, we have a lot of bears in Florida,” Eason said. “They are in no danger of extinction and are very healthy.”
Overall, he said the state’s bear population has grown more than 10-fold since the 1970s to roughly 4,050 at present. In addition, Florida black bears are showing healthy reproductive results with average litter sizes at just over two cubs. And as of 2016, bear populations now extend to 40 percent of their historical range, up from 17 percent in the early 1970s.
Because 80 percent of their their diet is dependent on abundant and varied vegetation, there’s little indication that their demographics are overwhelming the food supply. The only area of concern about over-population is in the Ocala area, Eason said, and the research there is inconclusive at the moment.
To drive home the message, Eason pointed out some of the research results will be published in the Journal of Wildlife Management and have been praised by the International Association for Bear Research and Management.
“This is world-class science. The science is as solid as you can get,” Eason said. “The challenge is do we have enough? And should we hunt?”
On that point, the FWC’s decision was all but the last word.
Hundreds attended the meeting, including the nearly 100 that signed up to address the Commission, and they continued the debate into the parking lot at the Florida Public Safety Institute in Gadsden County, about 20 miles northwest of Tallahassee.
Steve Gafford of Naples said he is not opposed to hunting, but believes that bears should be above a hunt.
“They are iconic wildlife,” he said. “To us, they are like mascots.”
But Daniel Crouch, a native of Boynton Beach now living in Lacoochee, said he was deeply disappointed.
“It’s just a political game,” he said. “Look, I can see both sides. People who are against it were raised differently than I was. I was raised with hunting. So how do you decide between the two? You go with the science. Not the politics.”
Chuck Echenique of Rebel Yelp Outfitters & Guided Hunts said hunters in Florida need to fight back. He said they need to back a state constitutional amendment protecting the rights of sportsmen.
Phil Waters, an alligator guide from Tampa, agreed.
“This is about liberty,” he said. “People that don’t want to hunt, don’t have to. The other side is just trying to take away our liberty.”
But Megan Sorbo, 11, of Orlando told commissioners that while science might be solid, the FWC has a duty to listen to the public, and the changing mood toward hunting.
“A population that is growing is not a reason to kill,” Sorbe said. “Public opinion should be a factor in your decision.”
On Wednesday, it was the decisive factor.
Get The Post’s complete coverage of the Florida Legislature’s 2017 session, PalmBeachPost.com/legislature