PANAMA CITY BEACH — The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission met Wednesday at the Edgewater Beach Resort and approved a controversial revision to the 2012 bear management plan.
The Bear Management Program presented population management options before the commission, including the return of regulated hunting. Despite outcry from many who spoke during the public-input portion of the meeting, the revision -- including the hunting option -- was approved by the commission.
"We approved the plan as it is with no revision or edits to it," FWC Executive Director Eric Sutton said. "As of now, hunting isn’t an option that’s going to be used in the foreseeable future, but it is a tool in the toolbox in case we need to use it."
In April 2017, the FWC commissioners asked staff to draft an update to the Florida Black Bear Management Plan and provide it for them in 2019. The original 2012 plan was not scheduled for review until 2021.
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"This is a tool that we were asked to explore, and anything is available out there for population management," Bear Management Program Coordinator David Telesco said. "Regulated hunting is one tool that can be used, it is the most common tool, it is used in most states and as one of the speakers indicated, we are the outlier."
More than 50 people spoke to the FWC about the hunting option. The majority of speakers opposed the change. Katrina Shadix, Director of Bear Warriors United, is among those who advocated for removing bear hunting from the management plan.
"The mortality rate that the FWC wants for bears are 20% and that’s already being reached by other methods like vehicle strikes, poaching and nuisance kills," Shadix said. "I have a poaching bill in Tallahassee right now that’s going to address the gal bladder black market, so they’re being commercially exploited to the point where they might go extinct."
The public consistently brought up the 2015 black bear hunting controversy that saw 298 bears killed in two days of the hunting season in Florida. It was a week-long limit of 320 bears and the first time black bears were hunted in the state since 1994.
Since 2006, 27 incidents of physical contact between humans and bears have been reported. Thirteen of those incidents resulted in moderate to serious injuries to the humans. For Telesco, those injuries are a driving factor to the revision of the management plan.
"A lot of people have been injured by bears and that did not happen prior to 2012," Telesco said. "Nine of the 13 people that received moderate to serious injuries, that’s happened since 2012."
The Bear Management Program presented a graph that illustrated how the bear population recovered from the mid 1970s, when it was estimated there were fewer than 500 bears.
According to the Bear Management Program presentation, there has been a 400% increase in the bear population during the past decade.