By Eric Hellgren, PhD
Chair, University of Florida Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation
The black bear (Ursus americanus) is one of Florida’s most charismatic large mammals. The history of the species since European settlement in the 16th century has been a bit of a rollercoaster; the original range of the species was believed to cover the entire state, but it has now been reduced to 7 subpopulations with limited connections between them. The upcoming hunting season on black bears, administered by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), has raised a number of questions and been the subject of much debate. It is not surprising that there is debate: black bears were hunted legally in Florida from 1936 to 1994, yet the species was listed as state-threatened from 1974 to 2011. Why hunt now? In this blog, I would like to place the hunting season into the larger perspective of a comprehensive management strategy for black bears. The “Conflict” in the title has a dual meaning: conflict between bears and humans, and conflict between stakeholders on either side of the hunting issue.
It is important to note that the FWC is responsible for the management of the species and is working from a statewide management plan. This plan was developed by 2 separate teams of FWC staff, consulted upon by a Technical Assistance Group of stakeholder group representatives, commented on by the Florida public, and approved in 2012. From my perspective as a research scientist who has studied bears since 1984, the plan is comprehensive, with objectives related to sustainable populations, habitat conservation, reduction of human-bear conflicts, and education of Florida citizens about bears.
Regulated hunting is a key component of modern wildlife management. For many species, it is the main tool used for population management. Depending on the species and location, hunting provides sporting opportunity, utilization of a renewable resource (e.g., food, fur), and population control. Hunting bears in Florida can provide all 3 of these results, as well as generate funds from hunting license sales for improved research and management.
Human-bear conflicts have reached a critical point in the state. It is intuitive to think that hunting, by reducing population size, should reduce conflicts between humans and bears. However, opponents of hunting rightfully state that there is no strong evidence that hunting black bears leads to reductions in bear nuisance activity. Several studies published in the scientific literature have failed to link hunter take with reductions in human-bear conflict. On the other hand, these studies are plagued by small samples, designs that do not include experimental controls (for example, what would have happened to nuisance activity if no hunting had taken place?), and confounding variables, like availability of natural food. If natural food is scarce, increases in both hunter harvest and nuisance activity are often seen as bears take more risks to obtain adequate nutrition.
The FWC recognizes the lack of a solid correlation between human-bear conflicts and hunting. It is well-known that unsecured human garbage is closely linked to many bear-human interactions. Consequently, they have invested significant resources into changing human behavior related to waste management via education of the public and municipal policy-makers. The intent of this effort is to reduce the attractiveness of human property to bears. The FWC have hired several new staff to help deal with a rapid rise in human-bear conflicts, which include 4 incidents of bears injuring people and greater than 200 bears/year killed by vehicles during the last 2 years. The relative lack of media attention on these agency actions compared to the attention focused on the upcoming hunting season may not be surprising because of the strong feelings associated with hunting, but waste management is key in reducing human-bear conflicts.
Based on my experience as a bear researcher and discussions with bear scientists around the country, I think the FWC has embarked on a smart, well-intentioned management path for black bears. Like much wildlife management, this path represents an experiment that will answer a number of questions. For example: Will improved waste management reduce bear-human conflicts? Will hunting reduce bear deaths caused by vehicle collisions?
New questions also will arise. Notably, if conflicts decrease, was the decrease due to waste management, hunting, or some combination of both? I hypothesize that in the long-term, it will be a combination of both. Waste management will target nuisance bears, especially at the interface of urban/suburban areas and wildlands. Hunting, on the other hand, generally will focus on bears in large areas of forested habitat such as Wildlife Management Areas or private land. However, over time, increased mortality of bears from hunting will slow population growth (estimated to be 30% between 2002 and 2014 in central Florida alone!). In turn, there should be fewer bears dispersing from large blocks of conserved habitat into suburban and urban settings, which also will be less attractive to bears as a result of improved waste management. Time will tell and FWC management will need to be adaptive to unexpected responses by the bear population. .
Conflict aside, I think that all stakeholders and managers are focused on the same objective: conservation of black bears in Florida for the foreseeable future. Recovery of the species has been a conservation success story; habitat protection was a large part of that success. Indeed, it has been such a success that today, coupling hunting with conflict management is an approach that appears needed to balance public safety, property protection, and resource use with sustainability of the statewide bear population.
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