Florida’s 2016 Bear Hunt Options: A Continuing Experiment in Special-Interest Dominance

Which population in Florida needs to be managed - bears or humans?
[6/22/16 Update below.]

On Friday, June 10th, Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) announced a suite of four options for bear hunting this year, from which the seven-member Commission will select a course of action at its upcoming meeting on June 22nd. If the agency hoped that no-one would notice – Friday afternoon being the traditional time for “quiet” press releases – they were mistaken: Craig Pittman, environmental correspondent for The Tampa Bay Times picked up on it immediately, and other Florida papers were not far behind, including our old friend, The Leesburg Daily Commercial. 1 To the surprise of very few people who have followed the issue closely, the FWC’s “biologists” recommended another hunt, although with a few modifications, the credibility of which we shall discuss shortly. But before we scrutinize the policy details, we must zoom out for a moment to survey the larger landscape on which Florida’s wildlife policy is being drawn.

As Adam Sugalski, the Campaign Director for Stop the Florida Bear Hunt recently reminded the FWC in his organization’s open letter, wildlife is a public trust that must be managed for the benefit of all the trust’s beneficiaries, including the future generations who will inherit whatever wildlife we leave for them to enjoy. While the FWC pays lip service to managing wildlife in the public interest, it is painfully obvious that special interests have long been granted a disproportionate voice in wildlife-management decisions. Like most state wildlife agencies, the FWC claims to be guided by a set of principles known as the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation (NAM), which explicitly favors hunters and implicitly deprecates other interests in society that are not interested in killing wild animals but are equally deserving of being heard. At the same time, whether under Governor Scott or his predecessors, the individuals appointed to the Commission have overwhelmingly represented economic interests, chiefly property development and related activities, that are inexorably in conflict with the preservation of habitat for wild animals.

This nexus between consumptive users of wildlife and consumptive users of habitats is of paramount importance in any analysis of wildlife policy, in Florida or elsewhere. (To take just one other example, the seemingly inevitable delisting of the grizzly bear in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem has been eagerly awaited not just by hunters but by a host of economic interests, especially ranchers and the extractive industries.) In Florida’s case, the decision to resume bear hunting after a 21-year hiatus represented (by the admission of one of the FWC’s few academic defenders) an experiment in wildlife management. But it was also an experiment in the management of human interest groups. In 2015, the undifferentiated mass of non-consumptive citizens was essentially marginalized and excluded from the calculus. However, in 2016 – with a large and growing number of municipal resolutions against bear hunting suggesting rather forcefully that the FWC’s constitutional authority could be amended in the next election cycle – that mass can no longer be treated with quite the same level of disdain, and the management task has, perforce, become “adaptive.” This evolution in the policy landscape, while not yet advanced enough to fully erode the primacy of consumptive interests, may expose and enlarge previously hidden fissures between Florida’s different species of human predators. Last year – and we made this very clear at the time (see here and here) – the alliance between hunters and developers was complete, but it was never equal. Hunters, though far too arrogant to admit it, were simply tools, retrieved from a dimly-lit corner of the policy workshop and dusted off to perform an unusual, dirty job. When Chairman Yablonski sang their praises, he of all people knew that hunting was just another part of the plutocrats’ comprehensive plan for profit-maximization. This year, therefore, when social conditions require the striking of a new balance, we can expect the outcome to protect the consumers of habitats at all costs. Every bit as single-minded as hunters, they are altogether more complex, calculating creatures and present the ultimate danger to the public’s wildlife trust.

How to Read the Menu

Two of the four options before the Commission were almost certainly included on the menu purely for the sake of completeness. (“You told everyone at the last meeting that all options were on the table, so here they are. Nudge, nudge; wink, wink.”) Nonetheless, we can be sure that one of these two options still has its fans within the FWC, at both the staff and Commission level. And looking at these two options will prepare us to evaluate the other two that are more likely to be adopted and that require the closest scrutiny.

Option 1 – A Bloody Middle Finger to the Rest of the World

Option 1 – a repeat of last year’s bear hunt, with the same structure “but with updated hunt objectives” – represents the nightmare scenario we feared after last year’s bloodbath. Although Dr. Eason (Director of Habitat and Species Conservation) has had to walk back from his post-hunt guesstimate of a statewide bear population of 5,000-6,000, he has made it very clear that he has no concerns whatsoever about the sustainability of a 23% overall mortality rate (per the 36-year-old paper of Bunnell and Tate). While last year’s hunt aimed for 20% overall mortality, arriving at its “harvest” quota after allowing for roadkill and “euthanasia,” could the “updated hunt objective” bump that up to 23%? Even if it sticks with 20%, the death toll would be higher than in 2015, because we would be working with an updated estimate of 4,350 bears, which is 1,200 higher than the baseline used last year. (Concerns that this number does not reflect human-caused mortality since the recent study was completed would be brushed aside by references to the 1,000 cubs that are allegedly surviving each year, threatening the poor people of Florida with a veritable tsunami of teddy bears – a Bearocalypse of “infinite growth.”) Thus, 870 bears (20% of 4,350) would be considered expendable. If we assume that roadkill claims the same number as in the record year of 2012 (282), our main variable would be the number to be destroyed as “nuisance” bears, which is likely to be higher than the pre-hunt figure last year due to more “aggressive” FWC action in that area. (More on that later.) The hunt quota, then, could be anywhere from 400-500 statewide.

Dr. Eason, who says he cares a great deal about bears, would not lose any sleep over that number. Nor, it is safe to say, would Vice-Chair Priddy, whose motion for a week-long hunt in 2015 survived the objections of two Commissioners in the September, 2015 meeting but was ultimately undone by the FWC’s counsel, who needed to ward off the threat of an emergency injunction a few weeks before the hunt. (Without that injunction hearing, and the efforts of activist Chuck O’Neal and Speak Up Wekiva, the hunt would almost certainly have continued in all four of the open BMUs for at least the full weekend of October 24-25, resulting in the killing of far more bears.)

Bottom Line: Option 1 remains very attractive to those who wish to kill bears for recreational “enjoyment,” and to those who want to marginalize an umbrella species that needs large areas of land that could be put to more profitable purposes. Professional managers like Dr. Eason and David Telesco (the bear-management program coordinator), who believe in hunting as an essential part of conservation and wish to provide hunters with a good opportunity to engage in this peculiar activity, would surely recommend Option 1 if they had complete freedom. (It is long past time for them to be known as what they really are – not objective scientists, but hunterologists.) Unfortunately for them, democracy for non-hunters has intruded on the “bromance” they have been carrying on with Florida’s manliest of men. One can only wonder how any lingering resentment might color the discharge of their duties to the broader interests they should be serving.

Option 4 – The In-House Joke

There must have been some hearty peals of laughter in the office when Option 4 – a complete repeal of bear hunting, both now and in the future – was included on the list. The brevity of the item alone makes this obvious. If the comments submitted to the FWC before the hunt last year, or those presented in the recent public webinars, are any guide (some hunters, predictably, contend that they are not), then this is the option that most members of the public would prefer. But while majority sentiments may be enough to bar Option 1 and force the human predators to adopt more subtle tactics, an outright ban on bear hunting (though within the constitutional powers of the Commission) is as unlikely as an immediate moratorium on in-migration to Florida and implementation of a strict one-child policy.

It is a sad coincidence that the percentage of public comments against bear hunting (75% 2) was identical to the percentage of voters who endorsed Amendment One, the Water and Land Conservation Amendment adopted in 2014. That means nothing in Tallahassee. We have examined the gutting of Amendment One before, and will not do so again here, save to say that the episode provides a telling indicator of who really possesses power in Florida and how they intend to wield it. This recent article in The Palm Beach Post lays it all out quite clearly: Florida is open for business, and that business is the creation of habitat for humanity.

The FWC’s many comments about preventing bears from “dispersing all over” – despite the fact that dispersal is necessary for the long-term genetic viability of our currently isolated subpopulations – reveal that they have “got the message.” Bears and other animals that need large areas in which to roam (the panther being the most obvious example) are to be contained. It is simply not acceptable to have such animals getting in the way of human “progress,” as defined by the ruling elite. Dr. Eason – ostensibly responsible for “habitat conservation” – has gone so far as to publicly discredit the disturbing conclusions of Wildlife 2060, a paper he co-authored, regarding the disappearance of vast areas of habitat for wildlife. Strangely, he now appears no more concerned about habitat loss than he is about wiping out virtually one quarter of the bear population. Instead of fulminating against the Legislature for its failure to protect crucial lands and create connectivity corridors – a sight one might have hoped to see, given the FWC’s constitutional independence, let alone Dr. Eason’s job title – he has become a kind of plutocrats’ Pollyanna, telling the public that existing habitat programs constitute a success story to rival that of the bears themselves. Dr. Eason’s recent assertions that a seething mass of humanity is perfectly compatible with a healthy bear population are music to the ears of both major groups of human predators, promising investors massive profits from the destruction of wildlife habitats and reassuring hunters that they can have their fill, too. Such obsequiousness might, in the fullness of time, help the good doctor to replace the long-running Nick Wiley as Executive Director of the FWC, but it also betrays the public’s wildlife trust in favor of the personal financial trusts of the ruling class. And it glosses over the minor detail that hunters, in the long run, might not have anywhere to play with their deadly toys.

Florida black bears - a success story?Bottom Line: Option 4 is the nightmare scenario for hunters and the professional managers who have been conditioned to believe that they must provide services to hunters. On Florida’s sliding scale of sadism, those special interests want to be as close to Option 1 as they can get. Option 4 is not much use to developers, either. However, while hunters have been useful allies for developers, if the developers’ wildlife “problem” can be solved some other way besides hunting, they would be quite willing to consider it. They just want to make money. They do not care if lives are lost in the process – as the entombed remains of countless asphyxiated gopher tortoises attest – but they do not have to take lives. And that crucial difference in objectives opens the door for other options that might leave hunters out in the cold (until they are needed again).

The Lethal Management Dilemma: Outsourcing v. Vertical Integration

Now we turn to the two options that have the highest probability of being adopted. In contrast to Options 1 and 4, the FWC’s press release devoted considerable space to Options 2 and 3, both of which could be taken to represent compromises or even concessions. However, in both cases a large number of bears will be killed by humans; the only difference is whose finger will be on the trigger, and who pays to pull it.

Option 2 – Mass Murder, Limited 2016 Edition; Buy Now, While Stocks Last

Described by the FWC staff who recommend it as “an even more conservative bear hunt,” Option 2 could more accurately be described as “even more deceptive FWC propaganda.” Claiming to be an attempt to respect the public input that the agency has been kind enough to tolerate for a “year and a half,” Option 2 has been presented as a more limited and restrictive hunt than last year. But most of the alleged restrictions are illusory or unenforceable, and therefore meaningless and insulting. Here are three examples:

  • The prohibition on taking a bear when any other bear is present, including cubs, is completely unenforceable, just like the taking of mother bears with cubs in 2015. The first bear brought to the check station we monitored last year was a lactating female shot by a young man who didn’t think twice. FWC employees did not ask him whether cubs were present and could not have cared less. And we’re supposed to believe that this would be any different?
  • “Further restrictions on hunting near game stations” is likewise completely unenforceable. 78% of the bears killed in 2015 were on private land. We don’t see anything in Option 2 preventing hunting on private land. FWC employees turned a blind eye to obvious cases of bears taken illegally within 100 yards of a bait station. Whatever the FWC decides about bear hunting, it is never going to be able to stop deer hunters from using bait on private land, and bears will be attracted “inadvertently.”
  • Requiring hunters to tag bears immediately might serve as a small deterrent against poaching, but FWC does not appear to be talking about an alligator-type structure in which hunters enter a lottery for a chance at a finite number of tags. The key question remains the scale of the killing anticipated, and no quota is discussed in this Option.

The most interesting aspect of Option 2, therefore, is the discussion of limiting the hunt “to correspond with areas of the state where human-bear conflicts are most prevalent,” limiting the number of permits, and limiting the number of hunters in each Bear Management Unit (BMU). To appreciate whether all of this actually amounts to a limitation, these three points must be considered together. One of the main objections to last year’s hunt structure was the number of permits issued (3,778), the ability of hunters to choose which BMU they would hunt in and potentially move from a BMU that was closed to one that was still open, and the possibility that a very large number of hunters would descend on just one or two units. And then there was the objection that bears in the middle of the forest were not causing any problems and should never have been targeted. This takes us to the very heart of the FWC’s so-called “science.”

As Adam Sugalski’s open letter explained in some detail, the proposition that hunting bears in the forests would slow dispersal to suburbia and thereby reduce human-bear conflict (HBC) was pure speculation, yet Dr. Eason stood by it in court. (Nick Wiley even tried to argue that bears in the woods would move around and cross paths with humans, so there was no clear distinction between forest bears and suburban bears. We’ll see how much longer they leave that on their website.) Option 2, by claiming to focus on conflict-prone areas, is an attempt to distance the agency from this junk science. (We will never see a full-blown concession or apology from an agency that has been accurately described as “smug and Teflon-like.”) However, FWC has not admitted what the best available science clearly shows: that hunting does not reduce HBC. They are still trying to sell hunting as part of their conflict-reduction program, a position that remains scientifically indefensible.

Hunters greatly outnumbered Florida's bears in 2015

That said, if the number of permits is limited to, say, 2,000 (no number is given in the option), and that smaller number of hunters is concentrated in just a few areas (most likely, parts of the two largest BMUs – Central and East Panhandle) then it might be mathematically possible for hunter-bear ratios to be just as skewed in 2016 as they were in 2015 in those areas where hunting is allowed. No doubt, FWC believes that deployment of suitable adjectives, like “limited,” “conservative,” and “carefully regulated” will lull the public into quiescence. But – unless they also intend to limit the right of citizens to monitor their activities – when the inevitable, grisly media coverage sullies Florida’s global image once again, the impetus to rein in the FWC’s authority – either through state constitutional amendments or revision of existing animal-cruelty statutes which exempt hunting – will set the FWC’s preferred stakeholders on a collision course with the tyranny of the majority.

Bottom Line: Option 2 is, perhaps, the easiest for the Commissioners to endorse. It is being handed to them on a plate by the “scientists” to whom they repeatedly say we must defer. It keeps hunters happy, and validates the hunter-centric worldview of FWC staff. It can be rubber-stamped in a short period (“bear management” only occupying a small space on the agenda for the meeting), as part of an attempt to establish a “new normal” in which hunting bears will be a permanent part of Florida life. But it exposes the agency to a legitimate attack on the grounds that it is not following the best available science, and it guarantees that the FWC will remain under the microscope when it would much rather return to the good old days when it flew under the radar and no-one was questioning its motives, reading its internal memoranda, or publicizing the incidental take permits it grants to developers and pipeline builders. And the public scrutiny will commence immediately, because the important details of Option 2 remain to be fleshed out. Option 2 is, in this sense, not conservative at all; it is risky. And we are going to assume that the people with the most money at stake have considered all of this, and may have whispered in the Chairman’s ear. As a seasoned political operative and a corporate executive, he knows very well whose voices must be heard.

Option 3 – No Hunt Does Not Mean No Killing

Option 3 – no hunt in 2016 but a possible hunt in 2017 – is obviously intended to provide the FWC with a way to relieve some of the public pressure that has become an impediment to the attainment of the agency’s long-term mission – shepherding Florida’s remaining wild animals into the pitiful enclosures that will be left for them after the state has been fully built-out. Those who have seen enough to know that the FWC must be reformed should therefore pay particularly close attention to this option.

Awarded at least as much space as Option 2 in the FWC’s press release, Option 3 bends over backwards to reassure hunters that they have not been forsaken. It is said that the option will give the agency more time to work with the public to “better develop the important role hunting plays in Florida’s comprehensive bear management program.” The agency’s focus on reducing human-bear conflict will proceed on “the understanding that a bear hunt in 2017 could be considered as an important conservation activity to control Florida’s growing bear population.” Conflict data will be monitored to ensure that “future hunts are focused where needed.” Since all of this keeps the FWC married to the indefensible concept of hunting as a conflict-reduction tool, the agency will face an uphill struggle “developing” the role of hunting among a hostile public. So what are we to make of all this? For hunters and the hunterologists who love them, Option 3 could certainly be seen as a tactical defeat in the short-term. (Yes, they could simply be biding their time, planning to return when the tree-huggers have settled down.) But, whatever the longer-term prospects for hunters, Option 3 is pure gold for developers.

If Option 3 is adopted on June 22nd, many anti-hunt activists will consign their protest placards to a forgotten corner of the garage and move on to other matters, such as the presidential circus, which always serves as a useful distraction from the horrors the corporate media hide from curious minds. They should guard against this tendency, for Option 3 contains a sting in the tail:

[…] FWC will continue to work with local governments to keep families safe. The Commission would direct FWC officials to continue to use professional discretion to take an aggressive approach to remove additional bears in response to conflicts and critical public safety concerns. [Emphasis added.]

Instead of outsourcing the task of killing to hunters who actually pay for the privilege of doing the developers’ dirty work (deluded into believing that they are acting as good conservationists), Option 3 amounts to a form of vertical integration, keeping the sordid business strictly in-house. While the agency loses a little bit of revenue, it gains enormously in the public-relations department. This is not just because it will appear to have responded to the majority of Floridians (“See, the system does work after all!”), but because a grotesque, international media spectacle, concentrated in just a few days, will be replaced by a much quieter form of lethal containment, widely dispersed across space and time.

And let’s be under no illusions about the scale and scope of the killing that could take place (the precise amount being left to “professional discretion.”) Dr. Eason has already explained that the agency is monitoring bears in suburbia for patterns of behavior. Even if a particular bear has not actually done anything – not “terrorized” any children (in the ludicrous words of the NRA, maximally offensive after Orlando’s recent experience with gun violence), not killed any yapping little dogs, and not even tossed a trash can – if it is seen three times (or whatever number the FWC decides to use) it is regarded as “habituated.” In today’s Florida, a habituated bear is a dead bear, for it is presumed to present a possible safety risk to humans. Those of us who have had personal encounters with bears know that this presumption is erroneous and malicious, but its defects will be shielded by the favorite go-to pitch of every authoritarian state: the public-safety card, which has an unmatched, proven record of herding the people in their masters’ preferred direction.

Bottom Line: Option 3 is, in many ways, the smart choice for Chairman Yablonski. Hunters can be led to believe that they will have another chance to act out their apex-predator psychopathology next year. Developers will know that the threat they are most concerned about – bears in neighborhoods – will be dealt with efficiently and discreetly. The cost of providing this security/marketing service will be socialized instead of billed to the private beneficiaries, adding a delicious new twist to the FWC’s already spurious contention that hunters (by contributing to agency funds) “pay for conservation.” Much of the anti-hunt and anti-FWC fervor could be defused and disbanded, allowing the conquest of nature to resume without the prospect of unseemly interruptions from ordinary citizens who have forgotten their place in the social order.

The Chairman can probably talk Vice-Chair Priddy into backing it (especially since she’s more preoccupied with panthers and her negotiations with the USFWS over the Eastern Collier Habitat Conservation Plan, which is, of course, a truly massive development plan, not a conservation plan). What passes for the “left-wing” of the FWC (what Margaret Thatcher would have called “the wets”) – Bergeron and Spottswood – can endorse it without too many qualms. And the others understand the big picture, being part of it themselves.

***

The late Gore Vidal taught us that America has the cleverest ruling class in all of history. The FWC’s decision on June 22 will tell us whether Florida’s ruling class is still patient enough to play the long game, or whether it has become so arrogant, so greedy, and so overweening that it can no longer think straight. Since Florida is running out of drinking water already and much of the state could soon be submerged by a rising ocean, the rush to profit may prevail over conservative calculation. Either way, the siege of the public’s wildlife trust will continue, and those who defend it must remain vigilant against well-camouflaged, state-subsidized human predators.

***

[6/22/16 Update] On June 22nd, the political appointees on the Commission voted 4:3 in favor of Option 3, with Chairman Yablonski himself breaking the tie. Commissioner Rivard was “the worm that turned,” joining Bergeron and Spottswood. Commissioner Roberts made the original motion for Option 2 (and indicated his support for it before any testimony had even begun) and was seconded by Priddy and then joined by Hanas. (We were wrong to entertain the possibility of unanimous consent for Option 3. It was never needed anyway.)

In explaining his vote, the Chairman sought to convince the public that they were not influenced by any special interests. And at no time during the long day did anyone – staff, commissioners, or public – discuss the sting in the tail of Option 3.

  1. With its typical sloppiness, it misidentified the statewide protest organization as “Stop the Hunt.” It also repeated the error made by numerous media outlets in printing a statewide bear population of 4,220 instead of 4,350. The former number is a subtotal for five of Florida’s seven BMUs.
  2. The figure may be even higher, according to some independent analyses.

6 Comments

    1. editor

      Because of the agency’s cynical fear-mongering, it could be harder to stop in-house killing than outsourced killing (i.e.hunting). That is, for the developer class, part of the appeal of Option 3. They know, if they have any sense, that the votes are there to pass a constitutional amendment that would require a majority vote of the public to hunt any animal that had, at some point, been on the threatened-species list. But passing an amendment to block the “euthanasia” of “nuisance bears” is a different ball game altogether. An amendment that required wildlife managers to use the best available science, as determined by genuinely independent external authorities, not hunterologists, might help – because the best science shows that even the removal of conflict-prone individuals does not solve the HBC problem. But there would be strong push-back against such wording on public-safety grounds. Ultimately, Floridians must learn to co-exist with wild animals. Public education – along the lines of the efforts undertaken by groups like Imagine Our Florida – will help.

      Option 3 does have a potential weakness in that, at some point, the FWC employees tasked with killing bears may refuse to follow orders. So far, no-one other than Fred Bohler has had the courage to go against the grain. The current administration has created a climate of fear within many state agencies. Thus, another avenue that would help is stronger statutory protection for whistleblowers and public ombudsmen with real power. Political shifts in Tallahassee could help there, despite the FWC’s constitutional firewall.

  1. Joan Davis

    Thank you for yet another spectacular analysis of corrupt FWC machinations. You have laid out their transparent PR, this time an allusion of four possible choices for the gang of seven to choose from on the designated D-Day of June 22. No matter the decision, our beautiful, innocent bears lose any which way. Still, there are many of us (and the numbers gratifyingly keep growing) who will continue to do whatever we can to try to save some of them. Thank you for your dedication to getting at the truth of the matter and telling it so clearly and powerfully. I always look forward to your posts. Gene Packwood’s illustrations are spectacular and add another layer of truth portraying the insanity and horror of what Florida’s criminals are doing to destroy our state.

    1. editor

      We certainly understand those sentiments. But there is still much to love about the United States – especially if we can separate the land, the people, and the animals from the human institutions that seem hell-bent on destroying them all. If those institutions are not reformed, no place on earth will be safe.

  2. Debbie Christian

    Kudos!!! Another great article and look into this important issue that is designed to confound
    the public. Thank you for keeping us abreast of the underlying evilness of this well oiled machine.

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