It has been nearly a month since the infamous Florida black bear hunt, a hunt that left a huge, ugly boil on the state of Florida. In a sense it seems so much longer and many like me who were on the front lines, a sort of M.A.S.H. unit only the casualties were all dead, counting the corpses at the hunter check stations across Florida, are still suffering from the repercussions. Without a doubt, all of us have transformed somehow and have created a strong bond with each other. We were the bear monitors, whose jobs were to document and count dead bears to ensure the limit of 320 bears was not exceeded. The hunt was supposed to last a week but was called off completely after two days.
While the last bear census was completed way back in 2002, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) stated that perhaps there were more than the estimated 3,000 to 3,500 bears since they were so easy to shoot. The truth is, there were 3,778 permits sold to hunters for a quota of only 320 bears, most of which were killed on private land, a lot being killed near deer feeding stations. While baiting was not permitted, there was no oversight and some dead bears were found with corn in their teeth indicating that they were recently at feeding stations. Easy targets, a majority of the bears (78%) were shot on private land, not in the forest. They were basically just sitting ducks.
Sometimes while driving close to Chassahowitzka or North Weeki Wachee where I live, I think about how black bears used to be able to travel throughout this great state and beyond, never constrained or isolated in pockets as they are now. This isolation has undoubtedly already led to inbreeding, some places more severe than others. Because the different populations, seven in all, are not able to interbreed, they are subject to genetic defects due to inbreeding depression which of course weakens the subspecies. The subpopulation near Chassahowitzka is perhaps the worst of all with probably less than 20 individuals remaining.
It saddens me greatly that Florida black bears are now being squeezed ever more by human overpopulation problems and the overdevelopment that encroaches on the habitat of not just bears but all wild creatures. Some are labeled “nuisance” bears because they travel through subdivisions in search of food which used to be plentiful in their forest homes, until humans started harvesting their primary food sources. Many of these bears, over 80 so far this year alone, end up paying with their lives. The FWC will usually not relocate so-called “problem” bears but instead kill them. On top of that, hundreds of bears are killed on Florida roads each year, the average being about 250.
When Governor Rick Scott and the FWC decided that declaring open season on bears was all right, after 21 years of not hunting bears, there was a public outcry. For those who knew about the hunt and actively voiced their opinion, 75% of the people were against the hunt. So when they went through with it despite the massive emails, letters, phone calls, and protests across the state, we were indignant and many of us fell into a depression.
The anti-empathetic (antis) will cry out that we who care about the environment and nature are hypocrites. After all, many of us have moved down from the north or other places to settle in Florida which has taken away bear habitat. They tell us to pack up and move out to give our property back to the bears. If we really cared about the environment, that’s what we would do, they tell us. But this dismissal of those who care about other sentient beings is just backlash and means nothing. They clearly do not understand the pain involved in witnessing the aftermath of such senseless brutality.
Videos came out after the hunt…videos in which bears were being shot at, crying, running away, and then the death moans as the hunters stood there so proud of themselves. Ordinary people don’t want to have to witness that, but it is part of the package. I forced myself to watch two of these videos made by hunters. In one, they laughed as the bear tried to run away after they shot her leg. She had just been meandering along minding her own business, unaccustomed to being tormented by humans. I thought that after taking pictures of dead bears, the video wouldn’t be as hard to watch. I was wrong and as I sat there sobbing, I knew I couldn’t just sit by and let it happen again.
I have hiked hundreds of miles along the Florida Trail and never encountered a bear. Is there a bear overpopulation problem? Do their numbers have to be “managed”? I don’t think so. This hunt was probably set up to diminish the bear population to further development and in the interim expand hunting opportunities for trophy hunters. The FWC and Rick Scott must be held accountable for the travesty that we bear monitors will always remember as “Bloody Saturday.”