By Jim Turner ©2023 The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — A North Florida lawmaker is calling for the state to hold a bear hunt after a county sheriff raised the issue as a way to help manage the area’s bear population.
Rep. Jason Shoaf, R-Port St. Joe, supported a hunt Wednesday, a day before Franklin County Sheriff A.J. Smith is slated to meet with Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officials over concerns about an increase in interactions between humans and bears in Smith’s rural county southwest of Tallahassee.
Shoaf, who has introduced legislation the past two years about killing bears, said during a Franklin County legislative delegation meeting in Apalachicola that “this bear problem is out of control.”
“We really need a bear hunt,” Shoaf said. “It’s what we need here in North Florida. We’re inundated. We’ve got way too many. Until we do that, we’re going to continue to have these problems.”
Shoaf’s legislation, which was not heard in committees, would have allowed people to kill bears without permits or authorization when they feel threatened or believe such force is necessary for protection. Shoaf said he will continue to file the legislation “until we’re able to have a solution.”
Sen. Corey Simon, a Tallahassee Republican who is the other member of the Franklin County legislative delegation, said he and Shoaf have also been in talks with the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission about Smith’s concerns.
“Our attention is there and will continue to be there until we can rectify the situation,” Simon said.
The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is headed by seven commissioners who are appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis. The panel is scheduled to meet Oct. 4 and Oct. 5 in Jensen Beach, but the agenda doesn’t include a discussion on bear issues.
Smith last week wrote to the governor’s office seeking a meeting with wildlife officials about expanding the state’s approach to bear management, including the potential of a bear hunt. A meeting was quickly put together for Thursday.
But bear hunts have long been a controversial issue in Florida. Julie Hauserman, an environmental writer and advocate with Earthjustice Outreach, disputed Smith’s assertions.
“I worked on the bear hunt issue when I was with The Humane Society of the United States and the complaint then was, ‘there are too many bears,’ ” Hauserman said in an email Wednesday. “That wasn’t supported by biologists.”
The state last held a hunt in 2015, which was expected to result in 320 bears being killed over a one-week period. After two days, 304 were dead.
At the time, Florida had an estimated 2,500 black bears in the four regions of the state — the eastern Panhandle, Northeast Florida, east-central Florida and South Florida — where the hunts were conducted. Each area had more than 200 bears in a 2002 estimate.
Black bears were placed on the state’s threatened list in 1974, when there were between 300 and 500 across Florida. At the time, hunting black bears was limited to three counties.
In 1994, the hunting season was closed statewide.
By 2002, the black-bear population was estimated at 3,000. A decade later, bears were removed from the state’s list of threatened animals.
A 2017 estimate placed the bear population in Florida at 4,050.