- Associated Press - Thursday, October 1, 2015

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Florida’s first black bear hunt in 21 years will be allowed to go forward after a judge ruled Thursday that a state wildlife agency was within its right to schedule the week-long hunt and carefully considered its impact on the bear population.

A group of several animal protection groups tried to stop the hunt, arguing that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission used old population data and flawed research in determining that it was OK to let hunters kill up to 320 bears. Leon County Judge George Reynolds refused their request for an injunction.

But wildlife officials and their lawyers said that the staff that recommended the hunt are passionate about bears, and that it wasn’t an easy decision to make. But they used conservative numbers in determining the number of bears that could be killed while still keeping a healthy population. They said the goal was to stabilize the bear population so it doesn’t grow too big, especially with increasing bear and human encounters.

“If we don’t quite reach it, it’s not the end of the world and if we exceed it, it’s not the end of the world. These bear populations are large and resilient,” said Thomas Eason, the agency’s division of habitat and species conservation.”

The state estimates there are 3,500 Florida black bears, up from between 300 and 500 in the mid-1970s. Opponents of the hunt have said that the wildlife agency is using 2002 numbers and asked the judge to delay the hunt until the agency can complete an ongoing study on the current bear population. They also said that there is no reliable way to stop hunters from killing more bears once the 320 limit is reached.

“If this hunt is allowed as it is currently planned, it could devastate their research, kill many of their research animals and render a lot of their research useless,” said Stephen Stringham, an Alaska-based bear expert. “At the very least they should wait until that study is completed.”

Lawyers for the wildlife agency tried to discredit the animal groups’ only two witnesses. Stringham admitted that he has never seen a Florida black bear or studied them. The other witness was Fred Bohler, a former Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission employee who used to respond to bear complaints. He admitted he doesn’t have a college degree and that he had never done scientific research on bears.

At one point, a lawyer for the state agency told Reynolds that continuing with the hunt would cause no irreparable harm.

“The bears might argue with you on that point,” Reynolds replied before agreeing the hunt could go on.

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