Florida’s first bear hunt in 21 years approved over critics’ uproar

SARASOTA — Florida wildlife commissioners, assailed for hours by critics, brushed off accusations that they were ignoring the will of the people Wednesday and authorized the first bear hunt in 21 years.

“What part of no don’t you understand?” said Chuck O’Neal, Orlando-based vice president of the League of Women Voters and one of more than 50 people who pleaded with the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s board to rethink the hunt of Florida’s largest native land mammal.

Before the 5-1 vote in favor of the hunt, most foes expressed anger and frustration with the commissioners, whose decision could lead to the killing in October of more than 300 bears, as estimated by FWC’s hunting director, Diane Eggeman.

“That’s just carnage,” said Genevieve Dimmit, who wore a “Dead Bear” sign pinned to her blouse.

Julie Wraithmell of Audubon Florida urged FWC to forgo a hunt and focus on causes of human-bear conflicts, which include loss of bear habitat to development and poor management of residential garbage.

She quoted from FWC’s own writings from 2005.

“Evidence has shown that nuisance situations will occur whenever there is an available resource regardless of bear population and sizes. … Having nuisance animals does not mean we have a nuisance population,” Wraithmell said, quoting the agency’s findings. “In other words, we can reduce bears as much as we want, but if there’s a pile of doughnuts on a corner in a subdivision, a bear is going to go there.”

Many critics fired barbs at the commissioners, suggesting they were poor stewards of the state’s wildlife gems.

Nancy Hartshorne said the agency ought to drop wildlife conservation from its name. “Maybe ‘Hunters R Us’ would be more appropriate,” she said.

Two dozen animal-welfare advocates waved signs and a banner outside the hotel, urging FWC to reconsider, though it appeared futile given the commissioners’ enthusiasm at previous meetings for re-establishing a bear hunt.

“We can’t stop trying,” said Bryan Wilson, coordinator of the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida.

He was holding a sign that read “Cap Cans Not Bears” and was flanked by Avery Cobbs of Orlando, who was sweating in a bear costume and waiting to address the commission. It was Cobbs’ third day protesting the hunt.

On Monday, he stood outside the FWC’s regional office in Ocala, and Tuesday he was in Winter Garden, hoping to get his message to Gov. Rick Scott, who was visiting the west Orange County city for a jobs announcement.
As a counterpoint Wednesday, Jim Motsinger, 77, who said he has hunted bears “all over the country” since he was 15, toted a simple “Pro Hunt” placard.

Motsinger, who lives in Mulberry, a small city about 30 miles east of Tampa, said developers have turned prime bear habitat into homes for people, contributing to the problem of dangerous human-bear run-ins.

“There’s only two options left: Tear down the houses or kill bears,” he said.

Inside the meeting room, a standing-room crowd of 200 people, dominated by hunt foes, applauded FWC critics who suggested the commission was bowing to pressure from special interests and Florida’s gun lobby.

Critics argued the species was just three years removed from the state’s threatened list, and the state has not yet finished its population survey of bears. One area that has been retallied, Central Florida, has showed a 30 percent rise in bears since 2002.

Those in favor of a hunt say the state has shown the bear population is large enough to support one.

But they were largely outnumbered.

Hanna Hodges, a 15-year-old hunter from Tallahassee, was heckled as she spoke for a hunt.

“It didn’t bother me,” she said afterward. “The tradition of hunting is important to us.”

Hunting would be permitted in four areas of the state, including Central Florida, where likely hunting grounds would include Ocala National Forest, Seminole State Forest and Rock Springs Run State Reserve. All of those federally or state-supervised public lands now allow hunting of other species.

After the vote, critics vowed to keep the pressure on.

“We’re going to keep fighting,” said Kate MacFall of the Florida chapter of the Humane Society of the United States.

“The first thing we’re going to do is talk to the lawyers,” said Frank Jackalone, a South Florida official with the Sierra Club.

Others vowed they would remember at election time that it was a Republican governor who appointed the commissioners and ignored pleas to intercede in the controversy.