The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, after more than four hours of emotional testimony from hunters and animal-rights activists, narrowly supported a staff contention that public support isn't as high as desired for a repeat of a controversial 2015 hunt.
"A hunt is consuming, it is consuming to this agency all the way around," Chairman Brian Yablonski said. "And the benefit that we get with this species at this moment in time, I don't know if it's worth the consumption that our team is going to go through and we're all going to go through."
The delay would allow staff members to complete an ongoing 10-year bear management plan which could be completed in two to three years.
Commissioner Liesa Priddy said she wasn't concerned that a majority of Floridians don't support a bear hunt.
"There's really no scientific reason whatsoever not to have a hunt," Priddy said. "We can't substitute politics for science. And if we don't approve a hunt today, we're really just throwing the science that we've gathered out the window."
Commission Executive Director Nick Wiley said the agency's science is "rock solid" on the side of a hunt. But, he said "we need more time" to work on non-lethal bear management practices. He pointed, in part, to research that shows far less support among Floridians for bear hunting than for hunting in general.
"The thing that troubles me the most in the social dynamic and social science is the gap between a 70 percent support for hunting and 48 percent support for bear hunting," Wiley said. "We've talked to people that have done this research, and they said that (gap) is troubling. Those numbers are not where you want to be."
The numbers were amassed in a survey conducted in November that also found 43 percent of Floridians oppose a hunt.
Wiley said the state "learned a lesson" from the 2015 hunt, which was the first in more than two decades. That year, 304 bears were killed during a planned weeklong hunt that was cut short after two days when the quota was quickly reached.
The commission last year narrowly voted against a hunt, giving expanded non-lethal efforts time to take hold, after commission biologists had recommended a more restrictive hunt.
Wiley's proposal Wednesday drew a string of hunters, many in orange shirts, to tell commissioners not to set policies based on public perception.
"What's next, who are we going to protect from the bleeding-heart liberals, are we going not kill off the bacteria on over-ripe bananas?" said Byron Maharrey of Palm Springs. "This isn't a popularity vote."
Chuck Echenique, a hunter from Tampa, suggested the agency spend money on pro-hunting education instead of on getting people to use bear-proof trash containers.
"Let those communities that choose to move into those areas … pay for their own trash cans," Echenique said.
The bear population in Florida has grown from 300 to 500 in the late 1970s to 2,700 in 2002 and 4,050 when updated last year.
Thomas Eason, director of the commission's habitat and species conservation division, said Florida black bears are in the middle of a population expansion that is likely to continue.
"Bears are thriving in Florida, they're doing well," Eason said. "They're continuing to grow in numbers."
On Tuesday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – pointing to the state's conservation efforts – announced that the Florida black bear didn't warrant being listed under the federal Endangered Species Act as requested by a number of groups and individuals, including the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club and Stop The Florida Bear Hunt.
Animal-rights proponents view the desire to hunt bears as a "trophy" thrill.
Megan Sorbo, an 11-year-old from Orlando, told state wildlife commissioners on Wednesday the bear population can be managed humanely, including the use of bear sterilization.
"You still oversee the most precious part of our state to me, our wildlife," Sorbo said. "The wildlife belongs to all of us, yet to no one. Therefore, public opinion should be a factor in your decision and all options considered."
The growth in the bear population comes as the number of calls and incidents involving bears has declined the past three-years.
The drop is attributed in part to the 2015 hunt and the removal of 112 bears that year for risk of public safety. Prior to that year, the agency removed an average of 36 bears a year for that purpose.
Also, the decline is attributed to an increase in natural food available to bears. The agency noted that an increase in acorns on the ground last fall could mean bears are spending more time foraging for acorns than rummaging in human trash.
The agency has also taken a more active role in counties where bear-human incidents and calls have been prevalent – Lee and Collier in the Southwest Florida; Marion, Lake, Orange, Seminole, Putnam and Volusia in Central and Northeast Florida; and Leon, Wakulla, Gulf, Franklin, Santa Rosa, Walton, Okaloosa, and Bay in Northwest Florida.
"The hunt is a relatively small part of our bear program," Eason said.
But it has drawn the most attention.
The agency received $825,000 for the current fiscal year to help residents in 11 counties get bear-resistant trash cans. The money was raised through licenses issued for the 2015 hunt and from proceeds of the Conserve Wildlife license plate.
State game commissioners agreed Wednesday not to hold a bear hunt for at least two years, over the objections of hunters who decried the delay as giving in to "bleeding hearts."