By Jaclyn Lopez
With as few as 3,000 bears and 180 panthers vying with nearly 20 million humans for a share of Florida’s ever-shrinking land mass it would defy reason to blame the bears and panthers for any increase in conflicts.
It would be equally unreasonable to suggest hunting is the best way to reduce those conflicts: There’s a trove of peer-reviewed research that makes clear hunting is not an effective way to manage conflicts with wildlife.
Yet, on Wednesday five people appointed to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission by a governor who remains “unconvinced” of humans’ role in climate change ignored all the best-available science and authorized the state’s first bear-hunting season in 21 years.
Without providing a shred of research to support their position, the commissioners insisted that the bear-hunting season, which would authorize killing 20 percent of Florida black bears, is necessary to reduce conflicts with people.
In bowing to the wishes of a slim handful of Floridians, the commissioners refused to give any weight to research that leaves no doubt about the best ways to minimize human-bear interactions and ensure sustainable bear populations over the long-term: secure garbage, employ nonlethal methods to address problem bears and work to make sure roads and sprawl don’t further isolate their populations.
It’s hardly just Florida black bears who will pay the price for this escalating refusal in the Sunshine state to allow science-based research to guide management of wildlife, especially management of rare apex predators like bears and panthers that play critical roles in protecting the health of our dwindling natural ecosystems.
Though the commissioners delayed taking any action on a proposal that calls for scaling back protection for Florida panthers, the growing contempt for science-based recovery plans for imperiled animals was embodied in statements made by commissioner and rancher Liesa Priddy who said, “We have a lot of panthers now. It doesn’t really matter if there are 180 or 250. We know we have a lot more than we used to.”
Not surprisingly, having “more than we used to” is not a scientific or meaningful standard for guiding the long-term recovery of a rare species, whether it’s Florida black bears or Florida panthers.
The facts are that the Florida panther’s one population in southwest Florida falls far short of meeting the scientifically established standards set by the federal recovery plan, which the the FWC helped draft seven years ago, that calls for two additional sub-populations of at least 80 animals each and habitat corridors that allow for free and natural genetic exchange between populations.
Instead of working to reintroduce populations of Florida panthers, the commission’s consideration of a proposal to scale-back panther protections simply asserts that the panther recovery goals are “aspirational rather than practical” and should be redrawn and claims the recovery plan is “unfeasible for a number of reasons” – but fails to name a single reason.
Nowhere in their considerations was their mention of the successful two-year study that temporarily reintroduced 19 mountain lions in north Florida, research that proved that Florida panther reintroduction is feasible. Nor do the commissioners seem interested in a survey found that 91 percent of respondents support effort to save the Florida panther and 83 percent support reintroduction.
The same disregard of the facts and public sentiment is behind the commission’s approval a week-long hunt for Florida black bears. That decision came despite the fact that the first survey of the bears population since 2002 won’t be completed until next year and that this unique subspecies of black bear now occupies less than 20 percent of its historic habitat in isolated pockets which continue to be squeezed by development and roads. More than 2,000 bears have been struck and killed by vehicles since 2002.
The commission’s contention that the bear hunt is warranted due to an increase in human-bear conflicts defies the findings of its own scientists indicating hunting will not reduce the conflict.
In addition to ignoring the science that shows that hunting is not an effective predator management tool, the commission seems to have given up on redoubling efforts to educate citizens on the benefits of to bears and humans of simply denying bears access to human food and garbage.
The commission’s opposition to letting research guide management of the state’s still-rare bear and panther populations demonstrates a troubling trend in which they are forgoing protecting and conserving wildlife in favor of capitulating to the desires a vocal minority who appear to share little interest in keeping wildlife wild.
This highly political approach should be replaced with a more cooperative, science-based approach to managing the state’s few remaining apex predators, one that recognizes the wide support among Florida residents for wildlife and that propels commissioners toward meeting their duty to treat wildlife as a public trust to be treasured rather than a problem to be eliminated.
Jaclyn Lopez is the Florida director for the Center for Biological Diversity where her work focuses on the protection and restoration of wild places, native ecosystems, and imperiled species in the Southeast