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Monitoring the Florida Bear Hunt in Ocala National Forest

Last week I left Wisconsin, where since July, friends and I have been investigating the recreational hunting of black bears. I'm part of a community of activists working to overhaul wildlife policies through citizen monitoring of controversial hunting methods such as bear baiting and the use of dogs to run down bears, wolves and coyotes. We call ourselves Wolf Patrol.

Ocala National Forest - Joseph Brown

Ocala National Forest - Joseph Brown

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

A lactating mother bear. Her cubs now have no mother - Joseph Brown

The use of dogs and baiting, which in places like Wisconsin is the primary tactic used to hunt bears, was made illegal in the Florida hunt, yet it was legal during the hunt to bait for deer with foods such as corn and commercial baits that also attract bears. Our interviews with community members indicated that some bear hunters were baiting with corn, knowing that if questioned, they could argue that they were simply setting baits in preparation for deer season which opens in less than a week.

FWC check station at Altoona - Joseph Brown

FWC check station at Altoona - Joseph Brown

Wolf Patrol's conclusion at the close of this inaugural hunt is that the FWC is grossly irresponsible in their management of black bears. Human activities such as illegal saw palmetto berry harvesting, the removal of blackjack oaks (which provide acorns as a food source for bears) in favor of commercially harvestable pine plantations, means black bears in Florida are the latest scapegoat used by wildlife managers and hunters to warrant an unnecessary recreational hunt for a new trophy animal.

Florida's Fish & Wildlife Commission stands by their decision to hunt black bears and argues that the large take in such a short time most likely means there were more bears in the state than were originally estimated. Though this sentiment is hardly unanimous amongst the commission. Commissioner Ron Bergeron, an extensive hunter and outdoorsman, offered a dissenting opinion. "When you have an issue of this magnitude and you don't have all your stock assessments in place and all of the science, I'm definitely against the hunt and I'm against any quota at this point. "

Rod Coronado - Founder, Wolf Patrol wolfpatrol.org

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