“I hope it stays like this.” We drove down a country road as the sun began its ascent and the fog had settled in, intermingling with the orange sky. The setting seemed surreal. It was a long drive to the check station, a place where hunters bring their kill to be checked in by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) officials. It was the first Florida black bear hunt after a 21-year hiatus. I think both of us were grateful we didn’t have to do this alone.
We were part of a large group that had tried unsuccessfully to stop the hunt. When it became apparent that it was actually going to happen, some of us signed up to be bear hunt monitors. It was, to my knowledge, an unprecedented maneuver and surprisingly, the FWC allowed our presence at check stations throughout the state. Our job was to count and document dead bears and to, it was hoped, bring the hunt to a close once quotas were met in each of the bear management units (BMUs) where hunting was allowed.
It is not widely known, but bear hunt monitors are what prevented the hunt from continuing as planned, as a two-day long, unlimited bloodbath. The hunt was to last a week or until quotas were met, with a guaranteed two days of unlimited hunting. However, the bear monitors ensured that the hunt ceased within the first day in two of the four BMUs where quotas were actually exceeded within only 13 hours.
FWC officials claimed that “bears won’t be out there advertising themselves,” but would be in hiding. I repeatedly heard their utterances to that effect. It is hard to fathom that these professionals were that ignorant of the facts. The facts were, these bears had not been hunted in 21 years and were therefore naïve and trusting. It was like shooting a dog. And many brought in that day were about the size of a Labrador retriever. An estimated 78 percent were gunned down on private land, not far from feeding stations set out by hunters. “He just walked right under my tree stand!” was something we heard from several hunters.
Before the hunt, there were an estimated 3,000-3,500 bears left in the entire state of Florida. The hunt directly killed 304 bears, but the ramifications of the hunt could not be measured. Lactating mothers and cubs were killed, despite the rules that cubs under 100 pounds were off limits. After the hunt, sightings of bears increased in neighborhoods rather than decreased. Bears were on the move since their world had been turned upside down and territories had been displaced. Some were found dead with injuries from hunters. Others became roadkill on busy highways.
The FWC plans to conduct a black bear hunt annually but they probably did not expect what was to follow the 2015 bear hunt. The 100 or so bear hunt monitors joined forces and they are not going away as the FWC no doubt hoped they would. Rather, momentum is building as they gain cities and counties in adopting bear hunt opposition resolutions. The largest by far is the county of Miami-Dade comprising 2.6 million people. Seminole County would like to adopt not just a resolution but an ordinance banning bear hunting in their county, thanks to speakers at the Seminole County commissioners meeting this month. This move is profound because Seminole county is the number one county for human-bear encounters.
Not one person has been killed by a Florida black bear in recorded history.
The FWC still has not announced its plans for the Florida black bear this year, although they are purportedly discussing the fate of the bears behind closed doors. Much to our chagrin, the fog lifted and many lives were lost on that beautiful sunny October day all over the state of Florida. Whether the FWC decides to carry on with plans to kill another 22 percent of the population this year remains to be seen. However, this time, the bear monitors of 2015 will not be sitting idly by.
Featured image source: Imagine Our Florida