To Curb Bear Population, Florida Reinstates Hunting Season

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This black bear was spotted atop a tree in Tampa, Fla., on May 17, 2013. The bear population has been on the rise, so state wildlife officials are calling for a bear hunting season. (MCT /Landov)
This black bear was spotted atop a tree in Tampa, Fla., on May 17, 2013. The bear population has been on the rise, so state wildlife officials are calling for a bear hunting season. (MCT /Landov)

For the first time in two decades, Florida officials have scheduled a bear hunting season. It's a response to a rise in bear attacks — but it has some environmentalists upset.

Experts say there's plenty of room for humans and black bears to co-exist, but the smell of food is pulling the animals out of the woods and into neighborhoods.

If you want to understand the situation, take a trip to Franklin County, in the pandhandle. A few months ago, a bear attacked a teenager there while she walked her dog near a convenience store.

Kaitlin Goode, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, explains that garbage — strewn through the woods and across the road at a recycling center for appliances — is part of the problem. She says bears can't help but drag tasty things back into the woods.

"These communities are backed right up to the forest, and it's just a bear pump," Goode says. The bears are flourishing in the woods, she says, "and they smell this. They might be in the middle of the woods, but they can smell this."

Bears are making a comeback in the panhandle — where it's mostly forest — and in the rest of Florida. In 2002 when the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, or FWC, did its last population count, there were about 3,000 bears. Now they're counting again.

Thomas Eason, the state director of Habitat Species Coordination at the FWC, says he expects the population to have grown significantly because of increased bear sightings.

"As you get more bears, particularly with more people, you start having more and more negative interactions," he says. "And so, finding that balance point that we call cultural carrying capacity is important."

To reduce human-bear conflicts, FWC wants new feeding rules and more bear-proof trash cans. Hunting is part of the plan, too.

The state hunt isn't finalized and won't be until the fall, but environmentalists are still upset. Kate MacFall of the Humane Society of the United States, says there's no evidence a hunt will help.

"It's a recreational activity that a small percentage of the population wants to do," she says. "But in terms of decreasing human-bear conflicts, there is no science that supports that."

MacFall says if wildlife officials want to reduce bear attacks, they need to focus on getting people to stop feeding bears — whether through intentional feeding or letting the animals go through the trash.

If none of these solutions work, the bears could be moved.

Caster is a 20-year-old black bear who lives at the Tallahassee Museum. During the fall, the bear needs to consume more than 15,000 calories daily. Mike Jones, an animal curator at the museum, says that drive for food is what landed Caster there.

"He started going to everybody's houses and going in garages," he says. "So the Fish and Wildlife Service relocated him and moved him about 150 miles away into a big swamp area."

But Caster couldn't stay away from people so officials moved him to a zoo.

He's lucky. Last year, Florida Fish and Wildlife officials had to kill almost 50 bears that had started to associate humans with food.

Copyright 2015 WFSU-FM. To see more, visit http://www.wfsu.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Bear attacks are on the rise in Florida. So for the first time in two decades, Florida officials have scheduled a bear hunting season. Experts say there's plenty of room for black bears to co-exist with humans, but the smell of food is drawing the bears out of the woods and into neighborhoods. Regan McCarthy of member station WFSU reports.

REGAN MCCARTHY: If you want to understand the bear situation in Florida, hop into a truck and drive through the panhandle. Kaitlin Goode, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, drives through Franklin County. It was here a few months ago that a bear attacked a teenager while she walked her dog near a convenience store. Garbage is strewn through the woods and across the road at a recycling center for appliances. She says the Bears can't help but drag tasty things back into the woods.

KAITLIN GOODE: So these communities are backed right up to the forest and, you know, bears - it's just a bear pump. They're doing really good in there and they smell this, you know? They might be in the middle of the woods, but they can smell this.

MCCARTHY: This area is mostly forests. Bears are making a comeback here and in the rest of Florida. In 2002, when the agency did its last population count, there were about 3,000 bears. Now, they're counting again. Thomas Eason, the state director of Habitat Species Coordination, expects the population to have grown significantly because of increased bear sightings.

THOMAS EASON: As you get more bears, particularly with more people, you start having more and more negative interactions. And so finding that balance point that we call cultural caring capacity is important.

MCCARTHY: The FWC wants new feeding rules and more bear-proof trash cans. Eason also says hunting is a part of the plan to reduce bear conflicts. The state hunt isn't finalized and won't be until the fall, but environmentalists are still upset. Kate MacFall of the Humane Society of the United States says there's no evidence a hunt will help.

KATE MACFALL: It's a recreational activity that a small percentage of the population wants to do. But in terms of decreasing human-bear conflicts, there is no science that supports that.

MCCARTHY: MacFall says if wildlife officials want to reduce bear attacks, they need to focus on getting people to stop feeding bears, whether it's intentional or letting animals go through the trash. If none of these solutions work, there's this...

MIKE JONES: Whoa, Caster. Come on buddy.

MCCARTHY: This is Caster, a 20-year-old black bear who lives at the Tallahassee Museum.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEAR EATING)

MCCARTHY: That's him eating a bunch of fruit. During the fall, the bear needs to consume more than 15,000 calories daily. And animal curator Mike Jones says that drive for food is what landed Caster here.

JONES: He started going to everybody's houses and going in garages. So the Fish and Wildlife Service relocated him and moved him about 150 miles away into a big swamp area.

MCCARTHY: But Caster couldn't stay away from people, so officials moved him to a zoo. He's lucky. Last year, Florida Fish and Wildlife officials had to kill almost 50 bears that had started to associate humans with food. For NPR News, I'm Regan McCarthy in Tallahassee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.