Florida's controversial statewide bear hunt ended after the second day after a higher than expected number of bears had been killed with 295 bears taken overall, nearing the official limit, Florida Wildlife officials announced in a statement issued online Sunday evening.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said in the statement posted on the agency website that 295 bears had been killed by the end of the second day of the hunt at last count. Officials had capped the overall limit at 320.
Wildlife officials shut down the central and east Panhandle regions after the hunt's first day Saturday and added in their statement late Sunday that the North and South units were closed to hunting after the second day, meaning hunting had ended in all four of the seven so-called bear management units were it had been offered.
Authorities say they weren't alarmed by the high numbers, saying that was an indication that the bear population is higher than they thought.
While officials capped the limit at 320 bears this season, hunters have until noon Monday to have their bear weighed at established bear check stations in the North and South bear management units, the statement said. The agency said it monitors those numbers closely.
Earlier in the day, Executive Director Nick Wiley, had told The Associated Press that the agency was leaning toward a shutdown of the hunt later Sunday. The statement late Sunday said the agency "took a conservative approach to setting harvest objectives, building in buffers so the number of bears harvested would stabilize growing populations while ensuring a continuation of healthy bear numbers."
It said FWC decided to stop the hunt when the harvest approached the 320 "statewide objective."
Officials shut down the central and east Panhandle regions after the hunt's first day Saturday. They said 112 bears were killed in the Panhandle region by midday Sunday, nearly triple the 40 kill limit for that area. In the central region, 139 bears were killed, it said. The agency's statement added that 23 bears were taken in the North unit at last count and 21 bears in the South unit before those last two regions were closed to hunting.
"From a biological sustainable population perspective, none of these numbers are worrisome to us, we have large growing bear populations," said FWC's Thomas Eason, speaking before the 2015 hunt had concluded.
More than 3,200 hunters purchased permits to participate, including 1970s rocker Ted Nugent and Liesa Priddy, a rancher and Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission member who voted to approve the new hunts.
The controversial hunt was approved by the commission earlier this year after much debate. In the end, the members said the black bear population had grown to 3,500 - up from a few hundred in the 1970s - and presented a safety problem.
On the eve of the hunt, Wildlife said a bear attacked a man walking near the Sportsman's Lodge Motel and Marina in Eastpoint. He was treated and released and his injuries weren't life threatening.
But critics say that number is outdated. Activists said the state should instead focus on trash management and curbing the smell of food in garbage and staged protests around the state this weekend.
"Yesterday was a horrific day of watching these incredible creatures be slaughtered and in looking in the photos showing up there have been lactating females so that means there are babies that have now been orphaned out there," said Laura Bevan, southern regional director of The Humane Society of the United States. "They should have counted those babies as dead also."
Wildlife officials have said the hunt was timed so the youngest cubs are 8 or 9-months, which they say is old enough to survive on their own. Authorities said they did not have figures on how many lactating bears were killed.
Authorities issued one citation for a hunter who took a bear in the 40-pound range, well below the weight limit and issued a warning for another who killed an 88-pound bear. They're also investigating a few cases of hunters in the central region who appeared to have baited bears in violation of the rules.
Public records review shows the number of citations issued to Floridians for bear-related offenses has been paltry.
A review of Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission records by Orlando radio station WMFE shows that the state agency only issued 10 citations last year for offenses like leaving food or garbage outside that could attract the animals. By comparison, the agency received 6,600 calls about nuisance bears.
Thirty-two other states also allow black bear hunts.
Paul Fitzgerald, a 16-year-old high school football player, said he saw a bear's head from a tree stand where he was stationed in Lake County and hit the 175-pound female bear in the shoulders.
"I got lucky," Fitzgerald told the Orlando Sentinel "I was born into it, so it just came natural."
His dad and a friend helped him take the bear to a weighing station.
Wildlife officials also cited favorable weather and prepared hunters for the high numbers.
"Bears haven't been hunted in 21 plus years in Florida so they're relatively naive. I also think hunters went out and did a lot of scouting and were ready," Eason said.
Officials set up 33 stations where hunters must record each kill within 12 hours. Penalties for violating bear hunting rules range from a $50 fine to $500 and 60 days in prison. Hunters cannot use dogs or bait to lure the bears, and must only kill bears that weigh more than 100 pounds and that don't have cubs present. Among the weapons allowed: shotguns, bows, pistols, revolvers and crossbows.