In the aftermath of the Florida bear hunt, the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) relentlessly repeated certain buzzwords in an attempt to convince the public that its hunt was justified. (See, for example, here and here.) Such phrases as “conservative,” “carefully regulated,” “science-based,” “sustainable,” and “limited” were rattled off in rapid-fire succession from a high-capacity messaging magazine. With loaded language and euphemisms, the bear hunt was described as a “harvest” that was needed to “stabilize Florida’s large, resilient and growing bear populations.” All of these claims are, at best, debatable; at worst, they are grotesque, patronizing lies. But one claim in particular deserves the strictest scrutiny; namely, that “the hunt is just one component of FWC’s overall bear management strategy.”
While not all formulations of this claim include the word “just,” they all effectively treat hunting as just another tool in the wildlife manager’s workshop, along with such methods as education and trash management, as if killing 304 (reported) bears in a two-day orgy of violence were just like having one of the agency’s more attractive bear biologists chat with the public on a nice Saturday afternoon at Umatilla’s Black Bear Festival. For those of us who do not live by von Clausewitz’s dictum that “war is the continuation of politics by other means,” this casual assertion of equivalence must be rejected as a form of depravity, for a society that truly valued the lives of animals – particularly such innately gentle, intelligent, iconic, and rare animals – would never see death as anything other than a solemn, regrettable, and even spiritual issue, qualitatively different by orders of magnitude from any other “management” technique. That said, however, the question with which this essay concerns itself is whether hunting really is part of Florida’s bear-management strategy, or whether it was an ad hoc exercise demonstrating the cynical “situational awareness” of a ruling class that saw an increase in human-bear conflicts (HBC) as an opportunity to confine the bears to areas that are not (yet) coveted by property developers. Since Florida has a formal Bear Management Plan (BMP) – adopted in 2012, concurrent with the decision to remove (“delist”) the bear from the State’s list of threatened species, developed over five years, and with a ten-year timeline for the achievement of its objectives – it seems only reasonable to respond to the FWC’s claim by asking whether the BMP called for hunting. As the Plan itself put it when discussing hunting, this question is a complex issue.
Appropriately enough for what amounts to a murder mystery, this essay begins with an examination of the court testimony provided in the hearing for an emergency injunction to stop the bear hunt on October 1, 2015. Since that testimony raises more questions than it answers, we are forced to move on to the Bear Management Plan itself, and look at all the ways in which the Plan addresses hunting, both explicitly and implicitly. What we find, although it may be dismissed by some as a different form of cynicism, is evidence of an intention to kill Florida’s black bears that predated the pulling of triggers by many years. This finding is not relevant merely to the millions of Florida citizens who were appalled by their own state’s bear hunt, but has broad applicability across North America, since the delisting of large animals has a disturbing tendency to result in the opening of hunting seasons, and the issuance of relaxed depredation permits, by state wildlife agencies. As the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service prepares to remove federal endangered-species protections from the grizzly bear in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem despite several major threats to their long-term viability, defenders of the grizzly bear have quite rightly seen bear “management” in Florida as a bloody harbinger of things to come. Florida’s 2012 Bear Management Plan presented a convincing, solicitous facade to the environmental groups opposed to delisting, but left the back door unlocked for the men of violence to enter when they sensed the time was right.
Perjury or Breadcrumbs? The Testimony and Statements of Dr. Thomas Eason
In the injunction hearing, the plaintiff, Speak Up Wekiva, called two expert witnesses: Fred Bohler, a former bear response agent with years of practical experience in the field, and Dr. Stephen Stringham, one of the country’s foremost bear biologists with decades of experience in Alaska. Much of what these men said on the stand that day ended up being entirely vindicated, yet both were subjected to deplorable attempts at character assassination by counsel for the FWC. For our present purposes, we begin with Dr. Stringham’s opinion of whether the BMP called for hunting. This exchange occurs at 1:22 in the timeline of Part 1 of the hearing, recorded by the Florida Channel:
Ralf Brookes (Counsel for Speak Up Wekiva): Was black bear hunting addressed in that plan?
Dr. Stringham: Only to say that it would not be addressed. I’ve searched this with keyword search… on the electronic copy of it… and I couldn’t find any planning for harvest.
It was unfortunate that Dr. Stringham was suffering from laryngitis and pneumonia, compromising to some extent his ability to speak forcefully, but his only real weakness as a witness was that, by his own admission, he had been “on the case” for a mere three days. It was an opening that the opposing side would not miss. At 1:22 in the timeline of Part 2 of the hearing (a curious coincidence), the following exchange took place between counsel for the FWC and Dr. Thomas Eason, Director of the FWC’s Division of Habitat and Species Conservation. (Dr. Eason led the team that started work on the BMP, though others completed the task. His fingerprints are all over it.)
FWC Counsel: Is hunting mentioned as an option for bear management in the management plan?
Dr. Eason: It is. It’s covered in several places in there. It’s not covered as exactly how we’re going to do it, but we do have an action to explore the use of hunting and other tools to regulate populations that are increasing.
FWC Counsel: [Sarcastic.] So I guess Dr. Stringham didn’t really take a close look at the management plan.
Dr. Eason: I think that would be hard if you only had three days to look at it. It’s a large, complex document that was many years in the making.
Curiously, during his cross-examination of Dr. Eason, Ralf Brookes, an experienced environmental lawyer who generally seemed very well-prepared and touched on a great many pertinent issues, never addressed this difference of opinion with Dr. Stringham’s reading of the plan. We will attempt to remedy that defect shortly.
Earlier in his testimony (at 1:09), Dr. Eason asserted – with the level of conviction that a physicist would display in stating the laws of thermodynamics – that hunting is “the cornerstone” of wildlife management and conservation in North America, foreshadowing the ghastly press-release issued by FWC Chairman Brian Yablonski shortly after the bear hunt, entitled The Hunter-Conservationist Paradox. Eason, much like his boss, was attempting to invoke the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation (NAMWC). Naturally, the FWC’s counsel did not inform the witness that in the opinion of the Boone & Crockett Club, which counted Theodore Roosevelt and Aldo Leopold among its members, the central pillar of the NAMWC is the Public Trust Doctrine (PTD), which affirms that wildlife belongs to the public and is held in trust for the public by government. While hunting is certainly part of the model, the Public Trust Doctrine has important implications that ought not to be submerged beneath the narrow interests of hunters (or property developers), who remain a small minority of the public. This is another area in which Dr. Eason, and his employer, should have been challenged on October 1, 2015 and must continue to be challenged as long as the interests expressed in 75% of the public’s comments are ignored.
Dr. Eason also testified (at 1:12) that “hunting is really the only effective tool that’s been established to try to manage bear populations,” and (at 1:18) that “the hunt is one aspect of a comprehensive approach.” Several months before the injunction hearing (after the Commissioners approved the hunt in June, 2015), Dr. Eason told the media that hunting had been “in the conversation since 2007.” That year, of course, was when drafting of the FWC’s Bear Management Plan began – led by a man who believed with every fiber of his being that hunting was the reason that America’s conservation practices were the envy of the world.
Schizophrenia or Duplicity: The Different Voices of Florida’s Bear Management Plan
Part I: Plausible Deniability
So, who was right – Stephen Stringham or Thomas Eason? In a sense, they both were, but one of them was more right than the other.
Hunting slides into the conversation as early as the second paragraph on page 1 of the Plan:
Black bear management has become increasingly complex with contentious issues surrounding human-bear interactions such as garbage and other human food attractants, feeding, and hunting.
This inclusion might strike some as rather odd, given that bear hunting last took place in 1994 (and even then only in certain areas where threatened status had not extended, an anomaly that those involved in delisting could not explain1). Human garbage was most definitely a current problem (for many observers, including Dr. Stringham, it was a central part of the problem), but hunting would not really become a “contentious issue” until the FWC decided to make it into one in 2015. Until then, the “contention” was limited mostly to the few hunters who were complaining to the FWC that they were not allowed to hunt bears.
The BMP’s most explicit discussion of hunting, and undoubtedly the one to which Dr. Stringham referred, is on page 27:
Currently, 32 of the 41 states with resident black bear populations have a regulated hunting season. Despite its common use as a management tool, bear hunting remains a complex issue in Florida requiring extensive stakeholder engagement. Because the purpose of this plan is to establish the conservation measures necessary to ensure that the bear does not meet the threatened criteria in the future, addressing the prospects of hunting is outside the plan’s scope. [Emphasis added.]
On the surface, this would appear to be the clearest possible support for Dr. Stringham’s testimony. For this author, also, the above passage long seemed conclusive. But the more time one spends reading the plan in its entirety, with an understanding of the precise way in which some of the plan’s key terms have been defined, the more one realizes that this passage is disingenuous. And one suspects that this was intentionally so, rather than an unintended consequence of drafting by committee.
The first problem with this key passage is its description of the plan’s purpose as a conservation measure. As we shall see, the plan’s description, on its own terms, anticipates circumstances in which bear numbers will have to be reduced by various “management” methods, including hunting. But the other, more obvious problem, is the language that came immediately afterwards:
Any further consideration of bear hunting after the approval of this plan would require additional direction from the Commission. If directed by the Commission to consider hunting, FWC staff would explore options and develop proposals in an open and transparent process for further consideration.
Those two sentences left the back door open for the FWC to instigate a bear hunt at any time (and to show us exactly what they meant by “extensive stakeholder engagement” and “an open and transparent process”). They also provided plausible deniability that hunting was on the table at the time of delisting. This is why wildlife advocates like Matthew Schwartz, Executive Director of the South Florida Wildlands Association, recalled being told in the Commission meeting that adopted the BMP (and finalized delisting) that hunting was not being considered. But hunting had not been cleared from the table. It had been very carefully positioned in a far corner, hidden inside a menu, and could be brought front and center whenever the Commissioners asked their paid servants to reach over and pass it to them. Just as Head Chef Eason testified, the menu included this item (on p.43 of the BMP):
Action 1.2.5 – Explore options to slow population growth in larger subpopulations, including the use of hunting and habitat modification. [Emphasis added. This action had a timeline for implementation of 2015-2018, and did not require additional agency resources.]
Dr. Eason did not perjure himself on the stand in Tallahassee. He knew exactly what the Plan said, and under what conditions its voice would be expressed in a hail of gunfire.
Part II: Terms of Engagement
The heart of the 2012 Bear Management Plan is Chapter 4, Conservation Focus Areas. At first glance, there are many grounds for optimism here. The plan aims for a “stable or increasing statewide population of Florida black bears” and calls for the maintenance of enough habitat to achieve the population objective, including the creation of connectivity corridors to allow the state’s genetically isolated subpopulations to function as one, statewide metapopulation, the viability of which would be enhanced by increased genetic diversity from interbreeding. In court, Dr. Eason testified (at 1:30) that the FWC is “actively” working on creating more habitat for bears and (at 1:39) has done “tremendous work” on establishing connectivity corridors. One really has to wonder just how hard Dr. Eason is biting his tongue. For, as Ralf Brookes reminded him, he was one of the authors of Wildlife 2060, which projected that the black bear would lose a further 2.3 million acres of habitat by that year (having already lost 82% of its original range), and that wildlife habitats would be “islands in an urban sea” as the human population soared to 36 million. The FWC’s own website acknowledges the extent to which Floridians support conservation-land programs like Florida Forever, but neglects to mention that Amendment One, passed by 75% of voters in 2014 and intended to give Florida Forever the funds it needed, has been eviscerated by the State Legislature in the most contemptuous manner possible. In other words, the proposition that the FWC could save a meaningful amount of habitat for bears is, and always was, a pipe dream. Once the brutal reality of Florida’s human population growth, urban sprawl, and developer-driven politics is understood, the implications of the Bear Management Plan become chilling indeed.
The BMP’s conservation goal is expressed in the following terms:
Maintain sustainable black bear populations in suitable habitats throughout Florida for the benefit of the species and people. [Emphasis added.]
We will address the meaning of “sustainable” at the end of this essay. For now, let us look at the Glossary of Terms, where we find this definition of “suitable habitat”:
Habitat capable and large enough to support bears that is outside of towns or dense developments. Habitat patches surrounded by development that are so small as to preclude management would not be considered suitable habitat. [Emphasis added.]
Page 47 of the BMP notes that even the Central Bear Management Unit (BMU), which contains the largest subpopulation and is supposed to be maintained at a level of at least 1,000 bears, “may still need habitat connections to ensure long-term persistence of bears in the BMU” even though the amount of conserved land exceeds the acreage necessary to support the minimum population objective. In other words, even the healthiest subpopulation is ultimately doomed – a reality that was brushed under the table by the Biological Status Review (BSR) that justified the decision to delist the bear, looking only 24 years into the future. (See Appendix II, p.176.) The IUCN criteria used for delisting – perhaps conveniently – require looking at likely populations three generations into the future, and the BSR used eight years as one bear generation. It should be noted that, in the absence of human-caused mortality, bears can easily live for 20-30 years, which would place three generations well within the disturbing future envisaged in Wildlife 2060. The BMP’s numerous references to the Big Bend area (which currently only houses the tiny remnant subpopulation at Chassahowitzka) make it clear that this is the only BMU in which a respectably large habitat may still be available by 2060. But the bears in the other BMUs have no way to get there, and are now going to be killed off as the human juggernaut relentlessly claims ever more habitat as suitable only for itself.
Part III: The Capacity to Carry Two Meanings
The first objective of the Conservation Focus Area was “population conservation.” On the first page of this objective (p.37), after all the optimistic introductory bullet points, we find the hunter-conservationist polishing the stock of his rifle:
While the objective is to maintain or increase the statewide bear population, the larger subpopulations may need to be managed near the levels indicated in Table 5 [basically, for the larger BMUs, the estimated populations at the time of writing of the BMP] as there is a finite amount of suitable habitat. In suitable habitat areas, bear subpopulations will likely be managed to reach their biological carrying capacity. In human-dominated areas, however, bears may be managed below biological carrying capacity to reduce human-bear conflicts, which may be closer to social carrying capacity…. [Emphasis added.]
A few pages later, the menu of management options is recited:
If larger bear subpopulations continue to grow at their current rates, at some point they may exceed what suitable habitat can support. There are several options to stabilize subpopulations. Strategies may include translocation to areas below the minimum population objective, reduction of understory vegetation to reduce habitat quality for bears or regulated hunting. [Emphasis added.]
There is no exploration of what “regulated hunting” might look like in the “contentious” bear-management universe, but there is a misleadingly hopeful discussion of translocation efforts. Dr. Eason made it clear in his court testimony that the FWC has essentially abandoned translocation because it only works when mothers with cubs are removed from their dens, a risky proposition for all concerned. However, the idea of deliberately reducing the quality of the bears’ habitat is discussed again (on p.54) in the “habitat conservation” objective. Here we are told that “the frequent application of fire could help reduce the abundance of bears in areas where that is a management objective.” A cynic might argue that FWC, in conjunction with other State agencies, has effectively pursued just such a “strategy,” allowing (until very recently) the harvesting of one of the bears’ key food sources, saw palmetto berries, and failing to concern itself with the negative impacts on bears of “controlled” burning. The possibility that such adverse habitat modifications might drive bears into residential areas in search of food is never mentioned at all, an omission that bespeaks either incompetence or an intention to set the bear up for the very human-bear conflicts that would be cited as evidence that social carrying capacity had been exceeded.
This dual-definition of carrying capacity is, in effect, the intellectual basis undergirding the “hunter-conservationist paradox” in the bear-management context, and this structure has been around for quite a while. Dr. Eason’s 2003 paper, Conservation Strategy for the Black Bear in Florida, prefigured the 2012 BMP in many respects2, including its enunciation of social carrying capacity as an upper bound:
Maintain bear populations at appropriate densities by increasing them if they are below social carrying capacity, decreasing them if they are above social carrying capacity, and always keeping them above the minimum viable population level. [p.12. Emphasis added.]
Thus, despite admitting on the stand (at 1:35) that Florida’s black bears had not exceeded the biological carrying capacity of their habitat, Dr. Eason was able to justify the hunt (in his own mind at least) by invoking social carrying capacity, although, interestingly, it was never explicitly identified as the controlling concept:
Ralf Brookes: [At 1:30] What is the purpose for stabilizing the bear populations [the FWC’s stated rationale for the hunt] in the BMUs?
Dr. Eason: To manage bears at a level that’s compatible with humans in Florida and to work to try to reduce growth so that we don’t have bears dispersing all over…. [At 1:37] We want to manage bears at a level that are [sic] appropriate for their surroundings…. [Emphasis added.]
Ralf Brookes: It’s about human conflict, right? It’s not about eating too many saw palmetto berries, or eating too many natural areas [sic], or having too many bears per acre…
Dr. Eason: Correct
Part IV: Pulling the Trigger
The third objective of the Conservation Focus Area was human-bear conflict (HBC) management. Given the inability of the FWC to command the financial resources and political leverage that would have been necessary to implement some of the techniques that it knows will definitely reduce HBC – chiefly trash-management – the objective of reaching the level of bear complaints that obtained in 2008-2010 was always unrealistic. And given further that the FWC seems to ascribe more weight to the humans who complain about bears than the many millions who value them greatly, its focus on complaints as a measure of social carrying capacity effectively pulled the trigger long before 2015.
The number of bear-related reports to FWC has been increasing over the past 20 years…. If this level of conflict continues in high complaint areas, there is concern it would create broad public antagonism towards bears, increase fear of bears, and promote a perception of bears as vermin. [p.65]
Thus, the FWC has heeded the wishes of people like John Simes of Heathrow, who voluntarily moved into an area adjacent to prime bear habitat and now feels trapped in his own home. How the bears might feel about having their cubs run over on SR 46 does not concern him. He is more interested in protecting his azaleas by hiding nails in his flower beds to inflict pain on the trespassers on his property. Not surprisingly, this particular stakeholder approved wholeheartedly of the bear hunt, invoking the very same hunter-conservationist paradox two days before the FWC Chairman himself. For this segment of the public, at least, Dr. Eason’s testimony was sweet music. It also mirrored the Plan that Eason knew better than anyone:
[At 1:37] Based, again, on the dramatically increasing conflicts and having four people who’ve been attacked and seriously injured by bears in Florida, we are taking every effort we can to try to make sure that doesn’t happen again.
So, because four people were hurt, at least three-hundred and four bears were killed by our “hunter-conservationists.” Even though, as Dr. Stringham pointed out (c. 1:30 of Part 1), the studies on the connection between hunting and HBC show either no correlation or a worsening of the situation after hunting, Dr. Eason expected us to believe that killing hundreds of bears in (what remains of) our wooded areas would somehow reduce HBC in the urban areas that are pressing ever further into bear habitat. And he expects us to believe that this kind of killing is sustainable.
A Sustainable Slaughter
As Florida’s bear hunt approached, many observers were profoundly troubled by the FWC’s assertion that a 20% reduction in bear numbers was an appropriate management target. With roadkill and euthanasia (i.e. killing of “nuisance bears” by FWC employees) accounting for an estimated mortality of 10% already, and the bears facing serious long-term threats to their viability, was it really necessary, even if one were to concede, arguendo, that populations had to be reduced, to inflict a further 10% mortality through a “harvest”? Since the Commission authorized the hunt without waiting for the results of a statewide bear-population survey due in 2016, exact growth rates had been replaced by estimates and anecdotes – hardly an impressive way of doing science. Even the FWC’s estimates suggested that the larger subpopulations were only growing at perhaps 2% per year3, a sober reality that was lost in deferential media reports that referred to a 30% increase in the Central BMU over twelve years as an “explosion” that justified a lethal response.
Once again, Dr. Eason had the 2012 Bear Management Plan as a trusty vade mecum. Of all the ways in which the BMP anticipates hunting, perhaps the most pernicious is its invocation of the opinion of a thirty-year old study that appears to justify an even higher death rate than the 20% used by the FWC:
[S]ubpopulations above 200 individuals with the reproductive characteristics common to most subpopulations of Florida black bears (e.g. females reproduce at three years old and produce two cubs every two years) can sustain a maximum annual mortality of up to 23 percent (Bunnell and Tait 1980) without experiencing a decline. [p.12, and repeated on p.31]
Defending this in court, Dr. Eason averred that the figure came from three papers by Bunnell and Tate. He admitted that the papers are 30-years old, but claimed (at 1:31 in Part II) that they are “from multiple populations that represent a broad diversity of bear populations.” This is supposed to satisfy us that the unique challenges facing Florida’s black bear – fragmented into genetically isolated subpopulations with grim prospects over the long-term that the “delisters” conveniently removed from their purview – do not undermine in any way the applicability of this ancient research. Nor are we supposed to be alarmed by his dismissal (c. 1:09) of the genetic uniqueness of the Florida black bear as a trivial matter that hardly anyone would ever notice and, by implication, miss. Just another black bear, just another management tool…. But we should count ourselves lucky. North Carolina’s Black Bear Management Plan refers to a Virginia study that claimed that its western bear population “could remain stable and provide a sustainable harvest if 28% of the bear population was harvested.” (p.25)
Florida’s Black Bear Management Plan defines “sustainable” as:
A statewide bear population that is healthy and able to persist over the long-term without the need for frequent intensive management actions.
The question before us is how the Florida black bear can possibly persist over the long-term when the FWC’s conception of “intensive management” entails slaughtering bears on a large scale. And to appreciate just how large that scale is, consider the implications of the BMP’s 23% mortality “limit” in the context of Dr. Eason’s statements after the hunt was over:
If we’re going to talk about a total bear population in Florida, it’s more like 5,000 to 6,000 bears out there now.
What might this mean for 2016? If we assume that 282 bears will be killed on Florida’s roads (the record set in 2012) and that 83 will be “euthanized” by the FWC (the number killed by the time the 2015 hunt took place), we would have 365 bears killed as a result of “negative interactions” with humans. But if, in the logic of the Bear Management Plan, the population can sustain an overall mortality rate of 23%, then the State could reprise the deadly math it deployed in 2015 and set a target of 1,150 – 1,380 dead bears overall, with 785 – 1,015 as a quota for “harvest.” And its servants could swear in court, Bible in one hand and Bear Management Plan in the other, that this is conservation.
- See page 168 of the BMP. While there, note the sloppy use of two fonts in replying to the argument of one peer reviewer of the delisting decision that several subpopulations should probably be listed under IUCN rules. This was clearly an area that received a second look from a supervisor…. ↩
- Our thanks to Aymee Laurain for the link. ↩
- The Biological Status Review that approved delisting referred to a 2009 study that estimated the “Ocala subpopulation was growing at 1-2% per year.” See p. 163. ↩