By Stephen Hudak
Florida wildlife officials, which closed bear hunting in Central Florida after one day, shut the whole thing down Sunday.
"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," Nick Wiley, executive director of the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, said at a Sunday afternoon press conference.
The hunt was scheduled for seven days, and FWC had allowed for 320 bears to be killed.
After two days, 295 were dead. Of these, 139 bears were killed by hunters in Central Florida, 112 in the eastern Panhandle, 23 in the northern region and 21 in the southern region.
The FWC put a stop to the hunt Sunday as the total reached the 320 limit and plans to use information gleaned from this year's hunt for future management efforts, according to spokeswoman Tammy Sapp.
Saturday, sharp-shooting hunters exceeded kill quotas in two of the four areas where hunting was allowed, including the Central region that includes Lake, Orange, Seminole and Volusia counties.
The kill limit for the region was set at 100.
"None of these numbers are worrying to us," said Thomas Eason, a wildlife biologist nicknamed "Dr. Bear" who serves as director of FWC's division of habitat and species conservation. "We have large, resilient, growing bear populations."
But the death toll alarmed Chuck O'Neal, organizer of the Lake Mary-based conservation group Speak Up Wekiva, which sued FWC and pushed the wildlife agency to stop the hunt, or at least stop it early if the kill limits were met. FWC originally planned for the statewide hunt to last at least two days -- regardless of the number of bears killed.
Hunters could have killed 500 bears or more if Speak Up Wekiva hadn't pressured FWC, O'Neal said.
"It saved the state from its disastrous [hunting] policy," he said.
Diane Eggeman, FWC's hunting director, admitted Sunday the wildlife agency had underestimated the rate of hunter success but pointed out the high harvest total also may suggest that the black bear population is larger than the current estimate of 3,500.
"The more bears you have, the more likely you are to succeed," she said.
The Florida black bear was listed as a threatened species until three years ago.
Wildlife officials said they had no reported injuries to any of the 3,778 hunters who bought permits to kill a bear.
One hunter was cited for killing an underweight bear, a 42-pound cub in the eastern Panhandle, said Major Craig Duval, the head of FWC's law-enforcement division. He said a hunter in Central Florida was warned because he brought in an 88-pound bear.
Bears weighing less than 100 pounds are presumed to be cubs.
Duval said FWC officers also are continuing investigations into instances of leaving bait to attract bears, which was not permitted under the state hunting rules. A hunter in Central Florida was cited for baiting, said Duval, who did not identify the hunter or provide other details.
FWC attributed the high bear kill to good weather, savvy hunters and unsuspecting bears.
"We have bears that haven't been hunted in 21-plus years here in Florida so they're relatively naive," Eason said. "I also think we had a lot of hunters who went out and did a lot of scouting and were ready."
As the bear population fell, Florida stopped hunting bruins in all but two counties in 1972. All bear hunting ended in 1994.
Wiley said he didn't anticipate much criticism from hunters for calling off the hunt.
Florida hunters paid $100 for a permit, out-of-state hunters forked out $300. Total sales reached over $376,900, said Sapp.
"I think most of them will understand," he said.
The bear hunt ended after Saturday in Central Florida and in the eastern Panhandle, where hunters bagged 112 bears -- nearly three times the kill quota.
Those two regions by far had the most hunters, with Central Florida attracting an estimated 2,000.
At Rock Springs Run Wildlife Management Area, a hunting area that touches parts of Orange, Lake and Seminole counties, a group of about 30 people held a vigil Sunday across from a tag station where bear hunters brought kills to be checked.
"The real raw fact of the matter of losing these bears is devastating to many of us in the community," said Emily Ruff of the Florida School of Holistic Living, who participated in the ceremony. "Our primary concern is to honor and pay respects to the wildlife that's been lost in this hunt...I feel in large part the public feels betrayed by the state for allowing this to take place."
Hunters on Sunday were allowed to pursue bears in two areas of the state -- a northern region that included an area stretching from Suwannee County west of Interstate 75 to the Atlantic Ocean, and a southern region ranging from the west coast of Fort Myers in Lee County across Alligator Alley to West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale.
Volunteers with Speak Up Wekiva, who photographed bears brought into many of the 33 check-in stations, described several of the dead animals as "lactating females." The state rules allow hunters to kill female bears, but forbid taking a bear with cubs.
The agency's bear-hunting guide advised hunters to "observe a bear for a while before taking a shot so that you can confidently estimate its size...Taking your time also helps make sure that an adult female doesn't have any cubs with her as cubs often don't show themselves right away."
Eason said bear cubs are generally born in February, emerge from the den in the early spring and, after eight months or so, "they've learned all the skills they need to be able to survived on their own...We knew there were going to be some [orphaned] in the harvest."
Despite Eason's assurances, O'Neal said his group was concerned about the hunt's hidden toll: wounded bears that scrambled away to die; bears that were killed but not reported; and orphaned cubs that will starve or otherwise not survive alone.
"It's worse than they think," he said.
(c)2015 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)