Florida’s first bear hunt in two decades opens on Saturday, joining other states that have loosened restrictions on hunting large predators, to the dismay of animal rights activists who see them as “trophy hunts.”
The hunt, which will span up to one week and allow up to 320 black bears to be killed, aims to stabilize a population that has rebounded to more than 3,000 from several hundred in the 1970s, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Hunting enthusiasts have defended such hunts in Florida and elsewhere as necessary to manage expanding numbers of bears and other large animals that threaten humans, while animal rights activists have decried the trend as cruel and ineffective.
“There has been a need to make seasons longer, make them more liberal, because there have been so many predators and they’re not as controlled as they should be,” said Nick Pinizzotto, president and chief executive officer of the Sportsmen’s Alliance.
The hunt comes at a time when several western states are considering regulations that would make it easier to hunt cougars. The big cats, with an historical range that stretched from coast to coast, have staged a comeback in recent years in some parts of the country.
Policies recently enacted or are under review in New Mexico, Oregon and Utah could result in the killing of more cougars, also known as mountain lions or panthers.
“The trend is ‘let’s open a trophy hunt,'” said Tracy Coppola, director of the wildlife abuse campaign at the Humane Society of the United States, referring to decisions largely being made by state wildlife managers. “It’s a very wrong management technique.”
In Florida, hunt opponents held statewide protests on Friday, aiming to build on the international outrage generated this summer by the killing of Cecil, a rare black-maned lion, by an American dentist who was on an African hunting trip.
The controversy comes as suburban development further encroaches on to the habitat of bears, cougars and other large predators, increasing the likelihood of contact with humans.
“We revere them, and we name our football teams after them,” noted Gavin Shire, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “And yet we also fear them, because of the potential harm that they can do, and the protections around them.”
That was the case in Florida, where state wildlife officers have received increasing complaints about bears in neighborhoods close to woodlands where the animals have long roamed.
Open garbage cans and unattended backyard grills attract bears looking for an easy meal. Hunt opponents say programs to eliminate such food sources could reduce conflicts between bears and humans more effectively than hunting.
At least four Floridians have been injured in bear attacks in the past two years, mostly in the suburbs north of Orlando.
In the Northeast, New Jersey expanded its bear hunting season for 2015, a year after a hiker was killed by a black bear, the first fatal attack in the state in recorded history.
Across the states mulling greater hunting, the scope of the expansion varies widely. Oregon is considering a zone approach to expand the cougar hunting that is already allowed, for example, while New Mexico has approved more trapping on private as well as state trust lands, according to the Humane Society.
Not all plans are advancing. On Friday, the Humane Society cheered a decision in Colorado to hold off on a plan to expand mountain lion hunting there.
Washington’s governor earlier this week blocked a decision by state wildlife managers to expand cougar hunting in the Pacific Northwest state, citing concerns about transparency during the rule-making process.
(Reporting by Letitia Stein in Tampa, Florida and Barbara Liston in Orlando, Florida; Editing by Frank McGurty and Lisa Shumaker)