My crew and I arrived in balmy Florida after a red-eye flight from Wisconsin where we were monitoring the state's trapping season for bobcats and coyotes. We were asked to come to Florida, because last June this state's wildlife agency, the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission (FWC) removed bears from the state's threatened species list and in August authored the first recreational hunt for black bear in 21 years.
The number one cause of bear deaths in Florida (previous to this week's hunt) are road collisions, with over a hundred bears killed by cars every year. The greatest threat to the continuing recovery of black bears is loss of habitat and human competition for the bears primary food source, saw palmetto berries.
Twenty acres of undeveloped land is cleared every day in Florida, adding to the cause of greater human/bear conflicts in communities in and near the Florida black bears home.Because of human competition for their number one food source, more bears are turning towards humans for food, with garbage rummaging argued as the primary reason for a recreational hunt to lower the bears numbers, which are estimated at 3,000 statewide. Until last June, Florida allowed for the commercial harvest of saw palmetto berries, which are believed to have great medicinal value.
Our research indicated that the densest bear population was in central Florida, in the Ocala National Forest (ONF), which is bordered on all sides by human communities which have registered a dramatic increase in human/bear encounters. The FWC designated the ONF as part of its "Central Bear Management Unit (CBMU)" and set the hunt quota there at 100 animals.
On October 24th, as the sun rose on opening day of Florida's bear hunt, we witnessed dozens of bear hunters setting up tree stands as well as prowling slowly down forest roads where the saw palmetto berries are ripe and rich. Later that morning we documented 15 killed bears being checked in at the FWC's check station just north of Altoona. All but two of those bears weighed in at less than 140 lbs, indicating that they were either juveniles or young adults at best. In numerous reported instances, even smaller bears were reported killed with the smallest being a forty pound cub checked in at the eastern panhandle. In at least two other instances bears illegally killed were publicly confiscated, than secretly returned to their killers.
A lactating mother bear. Her cubs now have no mother - Joseph Brown