By Barbara Liston
ORLANDO, Fla. (Reuters) - After a 20-year ban, Florida may bring back bear hunts to control a growing population of black bears that is increasingly seen as a menace in suburban neighborhoods.
Four people have been injured in bear attacks in Florida since 2012, mostly in the central part of the state built on former bear habitat near the Ocala National Forest.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, meeting on Wednesday in Jacksonville, plans to discuss reopening bear hunting season as a way to manage the population, which animal rights advocates oppose as unnecessary and unpopular.
Most encounters between people and bears result from homeowners leaving food out in the open, enticing bears to come into their neighborhoods, the state wildlife agency said in a report describing the current situation.
"A hunt will not solve the problem. People can solve it," said Laurie Macdonald, director of the Florida chapter of the Defenders of Wildlife.
Wildlife officers continue to study recent growth in the Florida black bear population, now being counted for the first time since 2002, when the number stood at about 3,000.
Scott Davis, vice president of the Central Florida Dog Hunters and Sportsmans Association, said he believes the problem is exacerbated by too many bears.
"They're getting pushed out of their natural area due to their overpopulation," Davis said. "That's what's pushing them to the neighborhoods."
Of 41 states where black bears are found, 32 allow them to be hunted, according to the wildlife agency report. Florida black bears are a local subspecies that was nearly killed off before hunting was banned.
The Humane Society of the United States on Tuesday released a survey finding that 61 percent of voters oppose a trophy bear hunt season, while just 25 percent are in favor, according to a news release.
Eighty-seven percent of respondents agreed that people who live in traditional bear territory have a responsibility to use bear-proof garbage cans.
A field test conducted by Florida wildlife officers found human-bear conflicts were reduced by 95 percent when residents used bear-proof cans, according to the agency's report.
"Hunters won't be in the neighborhoods. They'll be killing bears deep in the woods that are not a problem," said Kate MacFall, the humane society's Florida director.
(Editing by Letitia Stein and Sandra Maler)