Wildlife officials: Florida bears abundant, totaling 4,350

AP News
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Posted: Mar 24, 2016 6:48 PM

MIAMI (AP) — Black bears in Florida surged by 60 percent over 14 years to 4,350 last summer, new data showed Thursday, providing what wildlife officials said were plenty of animals for the state's controversial bear hunt last October.

Florida black bears dwindled to just a few hundred in the 1970s but have rebounded under protections, while continued development has put them on a collision course with people. Wildlife officials cite increasing attacks, car accidents and nuisance calls involving bears, and this week spent eight hours removing a black bear from a southwestern Florida school.

State officials approved the first bear hunt in 20 years for October, prompting protests at the time over management of one of Florida's largest predators. Wildlife authorities argued that bears had become abundant, although that was before results of the most recent survey were released.

Game officials ended the hunt early when harvest limits in some hunting areas were quickly exceeded. In all, 304 bears were killed.

No decision has been made on whether to continue allowing the hunting of Florida black bears, but data collected in the summer before the October hunt indicate the statewide population totaled 4,350 adult bears, said Thomas Eason, director of habitat and species conservation for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Population surveys that began in 2014 were completed using hair samples collected from lures set for bears over 11 million acres. The new total reflects a 60 percent increase over roughly 2,700 estimated in 2002, Eason said.

With about 2,000 Florida bear cubs born each year and even though roughly half those cubs won't survive, the population has been increasing, Eason said.

"Populations are strong and robust and growing," he said.

Animal advocates who protested the hunt have petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to extend federal protections to Florida black bears, saying the harvest, urban sprawl and collisions with vehicles threaten the animals' long-term survival.

While it's good news that Florida's bear population is growing, human population growth and habitat fragmentation still leave them vulnerable, Jacki Lopez of the Center for Biological Diversity said in an email.

Florida black bears are a subspecies of American black bears, which are hunted in 32 states. Earlier this month, federal officials said the population of Louisiana black bears, another subspecies, had recovered enough to no longer need protecting as an endangered or threatened species.