Yesterday, Florida’s largest newspaper, the Tampa Bay Times, rightly urged the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to forego a trophy hunt for black bears in the state, as it did last year after an outpouring of concern from residents. Connecticut is going through a similar debate, with its small black bear population, and there’s also a major citizen effort underway in New Jersey to pull back on that state’s hunt after one trophy seeker shot a much-followed-and-photographed bear named Pedals, who became a national sensation because he walked upright due to an injury to his front legs and had the posture and gait of a human being.
All three states are densely populated – more so than just about any other states in the nation. There are more people moving into habitats occupied by wildlife, with humans cutting down forests, building homes and roads, and of course, trekking for recreation in the forests that remain. Inevitably, there are some conflicts, with a few thousand bears and millions of people occasionally having encounters.
When I was growing up in Connecticut, there wasn’t a bear to be seen in the state. My heart would have raced in the best way to catch a glimpse of one of the bruins. Now, to the credit mainly of the resourceful bears, they’ve reclaimed a portion of their original range in the Nutmeg State. Black bears avoid human interactions, and the worst they typically do is raid the trash or seek a honey fix by raiding a beehive.
We’ve donated bear-proof trash cans in many states, and that’s the way to curb the first problem mentioned above. There’s not a solution to every type of encounter, but it seems to me that we can do our best to show tolerance for a long-lived, slow-to-reproduce large mammal who’s been dealing about as well as can be expected with the activities of human communities that swallow up wildlands, build homes, and bisect their habitats with roads that feature vehicles blazing past the animals.
Even if there are occasional bear-human conflicts, that’s no reason to allow trophy hunters to shoot bears at random. That’s akin to a crime-control strategy that involves shooting into a crowd. It does nothing, except in the rarest circumstances, to target a bear with a habitual problem of coming into contact with people.
While Connecticut and New Jersey had very few bears until recently, Florida’s unique and rare subspecies of black bears were considered a threatened species until 2012. When a season was opened in 2015, hunters shot 304 bears, mostly females. Given that most adult females will have two to three cubs, we can estimate that trophy hunters orphaned or stranded at least 76 – but likely more – bear cubs.
It would also put the total 2015 trophy-bear-hunt mortality closer to 400 bears.
These wildlife management cases are a test of our character. We can show tolerance and learn to live with wildlife, allowing these and other large, wide-ranging mammals to enjoy their homes. Or we can choose to exploit the very rare, almost always innocuous encounters that do occur, transform them into life-threatening scenarios, and use them as a pretense for the random killing of unoffending animals. These are not war zones and these situations do not warrant such a use of force and such wanton disregard for the animals’ interests and well-being.
Let’s face it: trophy hunters don’t kill inedible bears for food or for management purposes. They do it for fun, to create a selfie for social media and for bragging rights, and in some states, including New Jersey, they bait animals to lure them within shooting range. The New Jersey black bear hunt this year also allowed, for the first time in decades, the use of arrows and muzzleloaders, and there were no restrictions specified on the killing of cubs or mother bears. In other states, packs of hounds are used to chase the animals and shoot them from trees. Kentucky wildlife managers have proposed one of the most draconian hound hunts on their two very small, still-recovering bear populations—at a level that is heartbreaking in the extreme. And in Maine and Alaska, they are even permitted to conduct trapping with snares, or may be free to do so soon.
Last year, a group of knowledgeable Florida scientists sent a detailed letter to the Florida Wildlife Commission, warning that allowing the hunt to continue as it did in 2015, coupled with roadkill numbers, nuisance bears killed, and poaching, “may well plunge multiple subpopulations into sharp decline.”
Of more than 40,000 comments sent to the FWC before the 2015 hunt, 75 percent were opposed to the hunt. A 2015 statewide Remington Research poll found that nearly two-thirds of Floridians oppose bear hunting. The poll also showed that Floridians overwhelmingly favor educational outreach (84 percent) and bear-proof garbage cans (81 percent.) Eighty-seven percent agreed that neighborhoods near areas where bears roam have a responsibility to avoid attracting bears by securing their garbage and other foods.
I suspect people in Connecticut and New Jersey have similar instincts. Policy makers and regulators should show restraint and compassion, and just be thankful that their states have bears and that they can be found in places other than the history books.