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Bears back under the gun?

Higher bear numbers have state wildlife officials considering whether to lift a ban on hunting them.

By CRAIG PITTMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 18, 2000


For decades Raymond Hamlin Jr. hunted bear through the North Florida backwoods, just like his father and grandfather before him. In all that time, only once did the 76-year-old Bristol cattleman stand beneath a tree where dogs had cornered a 350-pound bear and pull the trigger on his Remington rifle.

He'd go hunting again tomorrow if he could.

"The fun is not in killing the bear," said Hamlin, president of the Florida Bear Hunters Association. "It's in tracking him through the woods and following the sign."

Six years ago, in a historic and widely debated move, state officials put an end to Hamlin's favorite pastime by making bear hunting illegal.

Since then, complaints about "nuisance bears" wandering into towns and destroying property have increased, and the number of bears struck by cars has hit new highs. Hamlin and others argue that those are clear signs the bears need hunting again.

At Hamlin's urging, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has asked its staff for "a black bear status report." At least one commissioner is convinced it's time to bring back the bear hunt.

"I don't know of a single thing a bear is good for other than to look at or hunt," Commissioner Jamie Adams, a former game warden from Bushnell, wrote this month in the hunting publication Woods 'n' Water. "There is no reason not to have a bear-hunting season in Florida!"

But Commission Chairwoman Julie Morris, who teaches environmental studies at New College of the University of South Florida in Sarasota, said her agency doesn't have enough information to start changing the rules on a species that it classifies as threatened with extinction.

Some environmental and animal-rights advocates are aghast that the subject of bear hunting would even come up again and vow to do everything possible to shoot it down. Adams is "absolutely wrong" about the need to start hunting again, said Judy Hancock of the Sierra Club. "If you look at the big picture for the black bear in Florida, it's totally unacceptable."

Others, while saying they do not oppose hunting in general, complain the debate will distract from the bigger question of ensuring the bear's future as its habitat is wiped out.

The hunting debate "takes on a life of its own," said Laurie Macdonald, senior field coordinator of the Habitat for Bears Campaign, a joint project of the Defenders of Wildlife and the Florida Sierra Club. "There will be a huge public outcry if the commission seriously contemplates opening a bear season, because this animal is one that symbolizes what is left of wild Florida."

That's the problem, Hamlin said. The debate over bear hunting in Florida always has been about perception, not population. Years ago, when more people lived outside urban areas, the average Floridian understood that bears are wild creatures and hunting them was an accepted pursuit, he said.

Now the only bears most Floridians ever see, he grumbled, are "Yogi, Teddy and Smokey."

* * *

One dead bear ended the hunt in Florida -- or rather, the perceptions about that bear did. The bear was shot by Ben Rowe, who sat on the state Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, the predecessor to the agency Morris now chairs.

"I didn't do anything wrong," Rowe contended after the furor over the killing reached the pages of Sports Illustrated.

Although Rowe's bear hunt was legal, his timing was abysmal. While Rowe was killing his bear, his agency was asking the federal government to add the subspecies of bears unique to Florida, Ursus americanus floridanus, to its endangered species list.

Thousands of bears once roamed every county in the state, until loggers wiped out large swaths of the forest they called home. By 1974 only a few hundred were left. Their future seemed so precarious that the state banned hunting them anywhere but in Apalachicola National Forest, Osceola National Forest and in two sparsely populated North Florida counties, Baker and Columbia.

By the time the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considered listing them in 1992, federal officials conceded the bear could very well be headed for extinction, but they didn't have the money or time to deal with the question right away.

Meanwhile, animal-rights activists capitalized on the public outrage over Rowe's dead bear by mounting a campaign to ban bear hunting. Angry letters poured in. Soon even the commission's own staff recommended ending the hunt because "the people of Florida are in the substantial majority opposed to the continuation of bear hunting seasons."

In 1994 the commission bowed to public opinion. Some hunters were so mad they refused to speak to Rowe, whom they accused of selling them out.

* * *

Since then some things have changed. In late 1998, the federal government decided not to list the bears for protection. Federal officials contended Florida held about 3,000 bears -- twice as many as the state thought -- and most live on public land unlikely to be developed. Environmental activists, including Macdonald, have sued to overturn that decision.

The bears do continue to lose habitat to development. For instance, Morris said, the timber giant St. Joe Paper, which owns vast tracts of land that have long provided a safe haven for bears, is now building new towns on its property throughout the Panhandle.

Meanwhile, complaints about nuisance bears have boomed to more than 300 a year, said Thomas Eason, bear management specialist with the state commission. The number of bears killed on highways increased from 75 in 1997 to 90 in 1998.

Environmentalists contend those numbers are the result of people moving into bear territory, not the other way around. Morris pointed out that the areas where the nuisance complaints and road kill occurred were not the areas where hunting had been allowed.

In Woods 'n' Water, Adams cited those numbers as proof that the bear population not only is getting out of hand but could become a threat to humans. A bear "can hurt you, and under the right circumstances devour your carcass," he wrote -- although Eason said there has never been a documented report of a Florida black bear attacking a human.

But Eason said Adams may be right that there are enough bears in Florida to safely hunt a few in a limited area. They "seem to be increasing in number over the last 20 years," he said. "We're seeing lots of signs in areas where we haven't normally seen bears, more than we've ever seen."

Eason and his staff have been trying to take a census by setting out food to attract the bears near contraptions that collect a few strands of hair as they pass. Biologists can extract DNA from the hairs and determine whether it came from a bear they have already counted or a new one. Such a census takes time, so at this point Eason said he is not comfortable recommending reopening a hunt unless "some of our commissioners want to push it."

He would recommend the commission wait a couple of years, to see results of a committee trying to write a new plan for managing the bear. Hamlin serves on that committee, although he scoffs at its goal.

"There's only so much you can do to manage the bear," Hamlin said. "Hell, he manages himself."

To this day, Hamlin contends the hunting ban was imposed "by devious means," and he speaks with disdain of the animal-rights groups that succeeded in ending the hunt.

"My Cracker daddy said people like that are weak-minded," said Hamlin. "They like chicken soup, but they won't kill a chicken. They can't face reality."

But Manley Fuller, president of the generally pro-hunting Florida Wildlife Federation, said it's Hamlin who may have the skewed perspective.

"In his mind, the world of St. Petersburg and Orlando and Fort Lauderdale is not his Florida," Fuller said. "His Florida is covered with piney woods, and it's kind of sleepy, and he sees bears all over the woods and wonders why he can't still hunt them."

-- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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