TALLAHASSEE -- Florida black bears won’t have targets on their backs at least for the near future because a proposed management plan made public Thursday will continue to ban hunting them.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s proposal, though, doesn’t completely take hunting off the table, and it would remove the subspecies of the American back bear from the state’s threatened species list.
“Whether we discuss hunting or not is not at all the focus of this process,” said the commission’s executive director, Nick Wiley. “If that happens that’s a dialogue that would have to occur later.”
The proposed 10-year plan said the commission may explore hunting and habitat modification to slow the black bear’s population growth in certain areas, but not before 2015.
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It also notes that 32 of 41 states with black bear populations allow hunting.
The Humane Society of the United States opposes any bear hunting in Florida. It argues it would have no effect on reducing the interaction of humans and hungry bears that raid garbage cans and pilfer food left out for pets.
“Whether it’s tomorrow or 2015, I don’t believe Floridians would stand for a trophy hunt of Florida’s treasured black bears,” said Jenifer Hobgood, the society’s state director.
The organization also says the bears shouldn’t be removed from the threatened species list.
“It’s too soon and we don’t have adequate data,” Hobgood said. “The data we do have indicates it may be detrimental to the bears in the future.”
The state population dropped to an estimated 500 in the 1950s, but has since rebounded to the point that wildlife officials say there’s no longer a threat of extinction.
They estimate Florida has between 2,500 and 3,000 black bears.
That estimate is outdated and the bears shouldn’t be considered a single population because they are scattered in genetically distinct pockets across the state, Hobgood said.
Their habitat, which once covered all of Florida, has shrunk by more than two-thirds. As a result, bears are searching for food more in populated areas and becoming a hazard on the state’s roads. Last year, 158 bears were killed or euthanized after being injured on Florida’s highways.
The only human ever known to have died is a motorcyclist who collided with a bear near Umatilla in March 2010. Officials never found the bear to see if it was injured.
Black bears are among 16 species the commission has recommended to be no longer listed as threatened or endangered. Others include the snowy egret, brown pelican, white ibis and alligator snapping turtle. Management plans, though, must be approved for each before they can be taken off the lists.
Killing or injuring a bear or possessing body parts would remain a crime although reduced from a third-degree felony with a sentence of up to five years in prison to a misdemeanor with a one-year maximum.
“Lot of people think, ‘Oh, you’re loosening up and everybody’s going to think they can go out and kill a bear now,’” Wiley said. “That is absolutely not the case.”
The state’s ability to block development of bear habitat would be reduced, but the commission would still have a voice in such land planning decisions, Wiley said.
The plan would create seven bear management units. The largest would center on the Ocala National Forest with an estimated 1,000 bears. The smallest would include the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge with about 20 animals along the state’s west coast north of Tampa. Others would include Eglin Air Force Base, the Osceola and Apalachicola national forests, the Big Cypress National Preserve and Glades and Highland counties.