Despite overwhelming public protest and dissent following the 2015 Black Bear hunt in Florida, another hunt will be mooted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Committee (FWC) on June 22. Let’s have a look at a number of reasons why a further bear hunt should never happen.
1. Background – the Black Bear population sank down to no more than a few hundred bears in the 1970s due to overhunting. A ban on hunting allowed bears to recover to a population of about 2,640 in 2002 and an estimated 4,350 in 2015. It should be noted that bears are extremely difficult to count, so those numbers are based on extrapolations, presumptions, speculations and other sorts of guesswork. Two bear populations (East Panhandle and South)had not been surveyed since 2002. Nevertheless the Black Bear was “delisted” in 2012 (i.e. no longer considered endangered) and likely at that time the planning initiated to resume bear hunting.
2. The 2015 bear hunt - 3,776 bear licences were issued for the opportunity to hunt a total quota of 320 bears at a cost of $100 for Florida residents and $300 for non-residents. The quota of was divided among four “bear management units” (East Panhandle, Central, South and North). Bears were killed rapidly – on the first day 207 bears were killed and after 2 days 295 bears had been shot. An astonishing total of 304 bears were killed after only a few days and the hunt was therefore quickly terminated. In East Panhandle the quota was exceeded by 285% and in Central the quota was exceeded by 143%. Overall, 78% of the bears were hunted on private land. Given such statistics it is not surprising that criticism and suspicion flowed quickly – many bears below the 100lb minimum limit were shot, 64 lactating females were killed (overall 179 females were shot) and there were accusations that bears were shot at feeding stations and/or hunted with dogs. Supervision of the hunters was minimal if it occurred at all. The rapidity with which the assigned quota was filled certainly could indicate that in many cases the bears could have been lured to the hunters’ guns?
3. It was not about the money – 3,724 licences were issued to State residents and 52 to non-resident hunters, meaning that the income from the hunt was $388,000. This income is a drop in the bucket for the FWC that has an annual operating budget of $356 million. The income from the bear hunt would thus have been about 0.07% of the funds available to the FWC – to kill 304 of one of Florida’s most threatened large mammals. The FWC has to date not accounted for the income from the bear hunt, and certainly very little has been said about how the income was used to assist bear conservation.
4. There was next to no science involved in the hunt – in fact, even a minimum of investigation shows that the reasons for the hunt, the “experts” trotted out by the FWC to support the hunt and the way the hunt was conducted are extremely flawed. Apparently, the decision to undertake the hunt was based on increasing levels of Human-Bear Conflict (HBC) – one newspaper mentioned that this “increased” level was based on 4 (four!) incidents of bears “interacting” with humans and “many raided trash cans”. Or was it because about 200 bears annually cause damage to vehicles when they are run over and most likely killed? Regardless, trophy hunting (let’s call the “bear hunt” what it was) is by no means an effective way of population control to begin with. Other methods of reducing HBC, such as educational outreach in bear areas, strengthening trash cans to make them bear proof (already in practice in many other States) and reducing bear habitat modification and destruction (it is estimated that 20 acres of land are developed every minute in Florida). Before the hunt started, there were no measures put in place to ensure that hunters would comply with existing laws governing bear hunts, hunters who shot lactating females/underage bears were not fined and no follow-ups were conducted of “suspicious” hunts. No experimental evidence was ever collected on the effects of a bear hunt on Florida’s Black Bear population, there was not even a single model designed to evaluate the consequences of bear hunting using different parameters (shooting underage bears and lactating females for example) and there has been no (or at best very limited) post-hunt evaluation of the effects of killing 304 bears – is there less HBC now than there was before? Is there evidence that bears dispersed out of areas following the hunt? What effect was there on bear cubs when their mothers were shot? In short, nothing was learned. Despite such very obvious shortcomings, the FWC insists that “FWC staff took a conservative approach to reinstating a limited bear hunt in Florida that was scientifically based and carefully regulated to ensure the level of harvest was completely sustainable while achieving the goal of stabilizing large, growing bear populations.” Their own statistics in the report quoted above suggest otherwise.
5. Among the so-called experts involved in “advising” the FWC was Eric Hellgren, Chair of the Department of Ecology and Conservation at the University of Florida. Hellgren wrote a very interesting blog on the FWC website, clearly indicating a strong bias towards the hunt. For example, Hellgren stated that he was writing “from my perspective as a research scientist who has studied bears since 1984…” whereas in fact he has never researched bears in Florida and his last publication on bears occurred 22 years ago. Also, Hellgren was of the opinion that “Regulated hunting is a key component of modern wildlife management. For many species, it is the main tool used for population management. Depending on the species and location, hunting provides sporting opportunity, utilization of a renewable resource (e.g., food, fur), and population control. Hunting bears in Florida can provide all 3 of these results, as well as generate funds from hunting license sales for improved research and management.” – patently untrue for bears. He does mention that “Several studies published in the scientific literature have failed to link hunter take with reductions in human-bear conflict”. And then Hellgren concludes with this statement – “if conflicts decrease, was the decrease due to waste management, hunting, or some combination of both? Time will tell …” Time will tell? Is that a scientific method?
Overall, the 2015 Florida Black Bear hunt seems to have been poorly planned, poorly executed, poorly researched. There was little if any scientific method involved in the hunt and those hunters who clearly transgressed seem to have been let off with a shrug and a pat on the back – only two misdemeanour citations were issued. It is reminiscent of the unregulated and uncontrolled trophy hunting common in many third-world countries. Almost a year later, there is no evidence of a peer-reviewed scientific article published on the effects of the 2015 bear hunt, and a complete dearth of statistics on how the bear hunt affected levels of HBC.
It is therefore highly surprising that the FWC is even contemplating a second Florida Black Bearhunt in 2016. I would urge that the precautionary principle prevails in this instance – if you don’t have any idea of the effect of your actions, the last thing you should do is continue such actions. The FWC risks a level of public anger much greater than they encountered after the 2015 hunt, and risks a further decline in confidence in the Commission itself. I would urge a complete moratorium on any further bear hunts at least until:
A. The data from the 2015 hunt is carefully analysed by independent scientists qualified to determine the effect of the hunt on bear populations;
B. There are delivered much more robust Black Bear population counts;
C. HBC mitigation via secure disposal of trash and waste is strictly implemented and the effects of such secure disposal is evaluated as a means of reducing HBC without the “need” for hunting;
D. The FWC accepts a much more responsible role in using non-lethal means to reduce and prevent HBC.
Only then can the FWC gain the legitimacy to go back to the public and attempt to explain why trophy hunting is a “necessary” component of Florida Black Bear “conservation”.