TALLAHASSEE (NSF) -- As a renewed debate builds about the issue, the National Rifle Association and the Unified Sportsmen of Florida are urging the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to hold a bear hunt later this year.
The gun-rights organizations' influential Tallahassee lobbyist, Marion Hammer, sent a letter Tuesday to the commission that also called for steps such as increasing the number of days to hunt.
"Bears continue to terrorize homeowners and prevent families from allowing children to play outside in some areas," Hammer, a past president of the NRA and the executive director of the Unified Sportsmen of Florida, wrote. "And while FWC (the commission) is working to educate people about securing trash and is trying to move dangerous bears out of residential areas, those programs are helpful but cannot succeed without hunts to reduce the population."
Commissioners, who approved a controversial bear hunt last year but have not made a decision about another hunt, are expected to receive a staff recommendation prior to a meeting June 22 in the Franklin County community of Eastpoint.
The October 2015 hunt --- the first in the state in more than two decades --- was scheduled for seven days, but ended after two days as hunters killed 304 bears. The state agency had put a 320-bear quota on the hunt and later acknowledged it "underestimated the hunter success for the first day."
The state didn't put a cap on the number of permits that could be issued in the 2015 hunt, charging state residents $100 to participate. Hunters from out of state had to pay $300.
Money raised from the permits helps pay for community efforts to manage the bear population through programs such as bear-proof trash containers.
Kate MacFall, Florida state director for The Humane Society, said while hunt opponents push for non-lethal means to reduce human-bear conflicts and see opposition growing against another hunt, they believe commissioners have already decided.
"It's trophy hunting, which we certainly don't support," MacFall said. "Floridians love bears. Their (the bears) subpopulations are already fragmented. They're already having a tough time with habitat destruction, huge developments, so many people moving to Florida … there are so many challenges that these bears already face."
Commission staff members have been holding a series of webinars that recap the 2015 hunt, offer the latest estimates on the numbers of bears in Florida, summarize efforts to reduce incidents involving humans and bears and take public input. The final webinar is planned for Thursday night.
Harry Dutton, leader of the commission's hunting and game management division, said last week that "for a possible future hunt" officials are looking at the length and time of year for the hunt and limiting the number of permits. Also, they are looking at how check stations are monitored, rules for hunting on wildlife management areas, the prohibition on baiting bears, the use of dogs to track bears and the minimum size of bears that could be killed.
In last year's hunt, there was a 100-pound minimum as bears under that weight are considered cubs.
The agency estimates, based on recent surveys, 4,220 bears are in the state, up from 2,640 in 2002. The population growth has been called robust as the estimated bear count was as low as 300 to 500 in the 1970s, when bears were put on the state's list of threatened species. Bears were removed from the list in 2012.
Local government officials from Seminole, Miami-Dade and Volusia counties have voiced opposition to a repeat of the 2015 hunt.
(The News Service of Florida's Jim Turner & Tom Urban contributed to this report.)
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