Gerald Almy: Florida bear hunt a smashing success

Gerald Almy

Virginia sportsmen are blessed to have a thriving bear population and a rich tradition of bear hunting. Hunters pursue them starting in October with long bow and crossbow seasons. They also have a new muzzleloader season that just opened recently. And rifle hunting lasts for many weeks. In spite of these long seasons, the bear population continues to thrive and expand.

But not all states are so fortunate. Hunters in Arkansas only recently were allowed to hunt bears. And many states still don’t have any black bear hunting at all. Until recently, Florida was in that camp.

Hunters had not pursued bears in Florida for over 20 years. In fact, until 2012, bears had been categorized as an endangered species in the state. That listing was probably needlessly cautious, though. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission estimates the state has between 3,000 and 3,500 bears.

Not only do they have a lot of bears, complaints from citizens have skyrocketed with bears damaging property, stealing food from trashcans and in a few cases, actually injuring people. The commission’s biologists and directors knew they had to do something. And that something meant open a bear season.

In a state like Florida, that was a brave decision, but the right one. The hunt was planned for the last weekend in October this year, and would last either seven days or until their quota of 320 bears was approached.

The hunt went through without a glitch, and it was, by all accounts, a smashing success.

“The 2015 bear hunt is officially over.” With that Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission statement, Florida’s potentially seven-day-long black bear season ended at 9 p.m. Oct. 25, after just two days.

The hunt actually concluded for Central and Eastern Panhandle units after the first day, Oct. 24, when over 200 bears were taken in those regions, including the Apalachicola National Forest, which has a large bear population and lots of public land. By Sunday evening the other two North and South units were shut with many more bears harvested, effectively ending the season.

Wildlife officials considered the hunt a success, with the tally of 298 bears very close to top range of 320 animals they hoped to harvest on this, the first bear hunt in the state in over 20 years. Very few violations were encountered, with just two undersized bears taken. Hunters were required to check killed bears within 12 hours at one of 33 checking stations set up around the state.

“We started this with harvest objectives that were very conservative and very mindful that we were doing this for the first time in 21 years, and there were uncertainties,” said Nick Wiley, executive director of the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, at a Sunday news conference, reported the Orlando Sentinel.

“The Commission took a conservative approach to setting harvest objectives, building in buffers so the number of bears harvested will stabilize growing populations while ensuring healthy bear numbers,” said Tammy Sapp, a spokesperson for the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

The animals had become a growing nuisance across Florida from the lack of hunting, damaging property, wandering nonchalantly through suburbs, and swimming in backyard pools.

Even though wildlife officials know the state has a healthy bear population of 3,000-3,500 animals, they were a bit surprised at how quickly the quota was approached, with potentially a week-long season scheduled.

They credit this to good preparations by hunters who scouted thoroughly and planned their hunts well and by the lack of any hunting pressure the bears had been exposed to. Officials hoped to accomplish three main goals with the hunt: stabilize the bear population, reduce human-bear conflicts, and provide a recreational opportunity for sportsmen and women. From all appearances, they succeeded with all three goals.

Several groups had tried to stop the hunt through legal challenges, but failed. Protests were common, but did not apparently disrupt hunters. A total of 3,778 permits had been issued for the historic bear hunt, starting in August. Rock and roll star and hunting guru Ted Nugent was among those who applied for a Florida bear hunting permit.

Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.