by Sarah Hinds
I spent Saturday morning, Oct. 24, in the Ocala National Forest. My drive from Gainesville was full of thick fog and beautiful landscapes. Arriving at my volunteer post — Check Station 21 for the Florida Bear Hunt — a pileated woodpecker greeted me.
I was not there to protest, but to quietly observe, photograph and watchdog the proceedings of the day. Those were my instructions from Speak Up Wekiva, the organization that worked tirelessly to try and stop the hunt. I introduced myself to a kind young biologist from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and was soon joined by another volunteer.
During my shift from 8am to noon, 17 beautiful bears were checked in to the station. One was an almost blind Grandfather Bear weighing in at 433 pounds. Two were cubs who barely made the 100-pound weight limit. One was a lactating mother. Even when dead, they gave off a regal energy that felt ancient.
Hunters tossed and dragged their “harvest” out of trucks and trailers to an on-looking crowd of locals who were there for Saturday morning entertainment. Many had brought the kids to watch.
Hunters joked that the bears didn’t even run.
Here’s the thing friends — I’m not against hunting or ethical conservation practices. But that’s not what happened in the woods that day. First, the argument that the bears needed to be thinned due to lack of food/resources?
No go. These bears looked great. Shiny coats and well fed.
Second, bears are overpopulated and becoming a nuisance? That is not scientifically justified. There are around 3,000 bears in the state according to the FWC’s last count in 2002 (another count is due in 2016, but the hunt may make the population estimates inaccurate). These 3,200 live in isolated pods: Ocala, Apalachicola, Big Cypress and Osceola. Bears in each region rarely interact due to development. If you do the math, you realize each of these populations barely has enough members to promote genetic diversity, which is why these majestic creatures were listed as threatened from 1974–2012.
The Florida black bear has lower genetic diversity than any other black bear subspecies in the world.
Three hundred and four bears were killed on October 24 through 25, including 36 mothers. This count from the FWC excludes poached and wounded bears and orphaned cubs. The FWC never intended this hunt to address the nuisance bear population, but to cull the already low population by over 10 percent (according to the FWC hunting proposal released last June). Therefore, folks who have problems with bears in their trash cans probably still will. On the contrary, there have been increased reports of bears in neighborhoods and bears hit on the road since the hunt, as many fled their native habitat during the hunt.
I feel the problem is not too many bears, but too little wild lands for them to roam. Florida is a special place environmentally, and development is occurring at an exponential pace. We stand in an awesome and unique position to preserve a passage of land over 1,000 miles long that runs throughout Florida: a functionally connected statewide network of public and private conservation lands. It is The Florida Wildlife Corridor.
Mark Twain said “Buy land, they’re not making it anymore.” That’s what the Florida Wildlife Corridor aims to do to preserve our incredible ecosystems and biodiversity. We can provide the connection for fragmented bear populations, give panthers more room to roam, but action is needed before apartments and resorts block the way.
What can you do?
Call your State Elected Officials and demand their oversight of Florida’s FWC, which has so blatantly proved its inability to manage this hunt and has ignored both science and public opinion.
Log your complaint with the director of the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission who mismanaged this hunt, and with Governor Rick Scott’s office who oversees this agency:
• Nick Wiley, FWC Director: 850-487-3796
• Sarah Barrett, FWC Bear Management Director: 850-487-3796
Or by email:
• Gov Rick Scott: 850-717-9337
or by email: http://www.flgov.com/contact-gov-scott/email-the-governor/
Sign the petition at: http://www.thepetitionsite.com/…/protect-florida-black-bear…
Support Speak Up Wekiva and their legal action against the state: www.speakupwekiva.com
Support the following organizations that are all collaborating to make the Florida Wildlife Corridor a reality: Florida Wildlife Corridor, Florida Forever, The Nature Conservancy, 1000 Friends of Florida, FDEP Office of Greenways and Trails, Conservation Trust for Florida, Defenders of Wildlife, National Wildlife Refuge Association, and Florida Wildlife Federation
Watch a screening of The Forgotten Coast-Following in the footsteps of a wandering Florida black bear, three friends leave civilization and become immersed in a vast and unexplored wildlife corridor stretching from the Everglades to the Florida-Alabama border. The rugged thousand-mile journey by foot, paddle, and bike traverses Florida’s Forgotten Coast—a wilderness that has the potential to change the way we see the natural world.
Spread the Word and get involved to prevent another hunt in 2016!