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Protest Growing Over Possible Bear Hunt

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is considering what would be only the second bear hunt in the Sunshine State in two decades. Meanwhile, opponents across the state are digging in their heels. 

Yogi Bear’s nose for pick nick baskets is legendary to a certain generation of cartoon fans. To them, bears will always be associated with the tart-tongued schemer.

But to wildlife biologists and game officials, the Florida black bear is a resource to manage, and a potential threat to humans. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Chairman Brian Yablonski has another name for bears.

“The black bear is one of our charismatic megafauna.”

Yablonski also calls black bears a success story. The Florida bear population rebounded from three or four hundred in the 1970s to more than 4,200 today, according to the latest estimates.

Citing an increase in human-bear encounters, and despite strong opposition, the commission held the first bear hunt in decades in October. Hunters killed more than 400 bears.

Yablonski says another hunt may be justified to keep the population growth in check, although that hasn’t been decided.

“Science is obviously guiding and that’s very important. But there’s a social component to this as well. But we’re going to take that all in.”

So far, there’s been a lot to take in. Seminole, Volusia and Miami-Dade counties have already passed resolutions opposing another hunt.

Megan Sorbo, an Orlando 5th grader, told the Volusia County Commissioners she wasn’t overly impressed by the DNA data used to estimate the bear population.  

“If this sort of technology exists and it is easily used, then I think it is also safe to expect that non-lethal ways to manage the bear population in our state should also be used.”

Megan’s brother, Trevor Sorbo, said he came to the county commission because he thinks the game commission ignores public opinion.

“Taking a deeper look at whey we decided to have a hunt and why there shouldn’t have been, three was over 40,000 communications sent to the FWC regarding the hunt, but 75 percent of them were in opposition. And only about 1 percent of Floridians are hunters.”

Hundreds of Floridians logged in to an FWC webinar on Thursday and e-mailed questions for more than three hours.

Dave Telesco, a bear program coordinator, said besides increasing bear-human conflict, there are other signs the bear population is growing too rapidly.

“We’ve got an outflow of bears from traditional areas, we’ve got what we call infanticide, or where adults are killing cubs. And in general, that’s a lot of dispersal into areas that they have not been seen before.”

Some participants wanted to know why game officials captured 177 nuisance bears and killed all but 53 of them last year. Other states relocate bears up to three times. It’s not possible in a state growing by 800 people a day, Telesco says.

“The idea of moving an animal where it will not encounter someone else when it has a 60-mile home range is just not an option for Florida.”

FWC experts pledged they are doing everything they can to prevent bear-human conflicts, including working with communities to control food sources. But the public won’t know until the end of next month whether they think another bear hunt will be part of the mix.

*Correction: Trevor Sorbo is Megan Sorbo's brother, not father, as originally stated.

A Miami native, former WFSU reporter Jim Ash is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience, most of it in print. He has been a member of the Florida Capital Press Corps since 1992.