Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Florida's Bear Hunt Will Go on | One-Week Event Could End after First Day If Kill Limits Are Exceeded

Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Florida's Bear Hunt Will Go on | One-Week Event Could End after First Day If Kill Limits Are Exceeded

Article excerpt

TRIAL COURT JUDGE

TALLAHASSEE -- A trial court judge on Thursday refused to stop Florida's first black bear hunt in more than two decades, accepting a new explanation from state wildlife officials that the hunt could be halted after the first day if the kill limits were exceeded in specific management areas.

The finding was critical in Circuit Judge George Reynolds' decision to let the one-week hunt, which begins on Oct. 24, proceed, and it undermined the hunt opponents' argument that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) was violating its legal duty to protect wildlife by allowing unlimited hunting in the first two days of the hunt.

In fact, when the wildlife commission set its 320-bear limit last month in Fort Lauderdale, the commission majority rebuffed two commissioners who specifically sought to give FWC Executive Director Nick Wiley the authority to stop the hunt in the first two days if the cap is exceeded. FWC officials then said the hunting was unlimited in the first two days, but they argued it was unlikely that quotas would be exceeded.

In Reynolds' courtroom on Thursday, FWC lawyers and officials told the judge that Wiley does have the authority under some emergency provisions that could allow him to stop the hunt in specific areas if the quotas were exceeded after the first day.

But the information, as well as Reynolds' acceptance of it, stunned the opponents.

"It's outrageous and unethical," said Chuck O'Neal of Speak Up Wekiva Inc., the Central Florida group that has led the opposition to the hunt. O'Neal said the opponents would be assessing their legal options following Reynolds' decision.

The judge heard more than four hours of testimony and questioning in the case, including dueling bear experts who differed over the status of Florida's black bear population, which was nearly hunted into extinction in the 1970s but has recovered to roughly 3,500 bears today. Bear hunting was banned statewide in 1994.

Reynolds ruled that the FWC had a "rational" basis for its population estimate, even though the data used in two management regions was from 2002, while the other region populations were based on 2014 studies. …

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