by Vivienne Burgess
The first shot was fired at 7:01am on the 23rd October 2015, 30 minutes before sunrise. 48 hours later, when the sun was setting on a different day, the total body count had come to 207. All of them, Florida black bears.
Now to most people the mass slaughter of wild animals is entirely abhorrent, no question. It is so morally wrong that their faces scrunch in reflex, they gag at the thought of innocent creatures in fear and pain – but to Floridians, these two, bloody, October days are known simply as the annua Florida bear hunt.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) approved the limited hunt in 2015 as an effective method of population control – a “limited hunt” being the quota capped, license harvesting of wild bears. The FWC explain, ‘The purpose of reinstating a bear hunting season was to slow to growth of large and growing bear populations.’ Yes, reinstating. The last hunt of its kind happened over 20 years ago, in 1994.
In a blog post, Editor for The Wildlife Society’s Wildlife Monographs, Eric Hellgren wrote, ‘Human bear conflicts have reached a critical point in the state,’ but what’s interesting about that is in 2015 the bear population had not even been counted accurately since 2002, when the last state-wide tally was made.
Hellgren goes on to describe the sporting opportunity and renewable resource utilization (food, fur etc.) provided by the annual hunt, which generates, along with hunting license sales, important capital for the state’s economy. The hunters themselves are also keen to share the positives of their hobby. Paul Palmer, proud owner of a .338 Magnum rifle he brought out for the hunt, told the press, ‘I eat everything I shoot. I don’t like to buy meat at a grocery store.’
But Paul doesn’t speak for all Floridians. Astevia, a Check-in monitor, making sure no hunters had abused their license permissions, said, ‘It’s wrong. It’s death.’ And many people stand by her.
After vehement protests in the summer of 2015 failed to prevent the hunt going ahead last October, unyielding pressure from animal rights group Stop the Hunt, and other bear-conscious Floridians, has swayed the FWC to vote against celebrating the hunt in 2016.
Many whom fought for the re-banning felt betrayal at the misinformation spread by officials who said the soon-to-be orphaned cubs would be old enough to survive on their own, without their mothers. At the time of the hunt, they purported, cubs would be between 8 and 9 months old and no longer dependant on their mothers’ milk for nutrition. Chris Norcott, Florida wildlife photographer and animal advocate, debunked this when he told The Dodo, ‘I have spent years photographing black bears in the wild and have witnessed first-hand cubs nursing from their mothers up until 15 months.’
Nick Wiley, FWC executive director relayed in a statement, “Although hunting has been demonstrated to be a valuable tool to control bear populations across the country, it is just one part of FWC’s comprehensive bear management program. I am proud of our staff who used the latest, cutting-edge, peer-reviewed science to develop a recommendation for our Commissioners to consider. Our agency will continue to work with Floridians, the scientific community and local governments as our focus remains balancing the needs of Florida’s growing bear population with what’s best for families in our state.’
This year, thanks to Stop the Hunt, the FWC has chosen to do what’s best for families in Florida – not just the human ones. The black bear cubs born and raised in 2016 will spend their summer free from the threat of another regulated harvest, playing with their siblings, nursing from their mothers, and exploring the beautiful forest, just like kids should.
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