River current slipped my kayak around cypress knees and beneath the arms of tupelo gum, but my mind was wrapped around black bears: the state wildlife commissioners had just voted to open a hunting season on them, beginning October 24.
As we left the woods, a black bear cub galloped across the dirt road in front of our car.
Could hunters legally shoot such a small bear, we wondered? Would they? Really? And how would a cub survive if his mother were killed?
And this: Can we not accommodate and honor the rightful presence of a mere 3000 black bears in Florida? Why is our state addressing the conflicts generated by too many humans pressing on our wild places, through legalized slaughter of bears?
In 1984, when I was hired as a biologist by the state wildlife agency, black bears were hunted in Florida. Over development and hunting had driven the animals to historic lows. Hundreds were killed every year on Florida highways. In 1994, reason prevailed: bear hunting was closed.
As bears rebounded, they began to cross human property lines and learned to enjoy dog food, birdseed and human garbage. Nowhere on the landscape are there signs that bears can read, nor laws that they have agreed to. Many were, and are, labeled “nuisance,” and killed.
Through public meetings, letters, social media, and reliable public opinion polls, the vast majority of the state’s citizens oppose sport killing of bears. Why don’t they prevail? You only need look to our “leadership.”
Governor Scott has systematically abolished the Department of Community Affairs, and dismantled essential functions of the Water Management Districts, and the Department of Environmental Protection. He hires agency heads of his same mind. But because the FWC is a constitutional agency, not directly subject to the governor, Scott has co opted that agency through appointment of commissioners. Seven such appointees oversee FWC, five chosen by Scott. Five of the seven voted in favor of bear hunting.
Bears and humans have lived together on this planet for hundreds of centuries. Sometimes we have driven a great subspecies of bear to extinction. Often, we have worshipped them. Festivals and rituals surrounding the slain bear have been widely distributed in virtually every country of Europe, Asia and the Americas. I believe some hunters are still prayerful in their harvest, but not so, our politicians.
Somewhere, a bear is drinking water. Imagine her lapping. She is not a shadow or a myth or a “nuisance.” She is thick fur and white teeth and adept tongue. She is powerful nose and small eyes. She is non-retractable claw, sacred paw, leafy den. She has a lust for berries and perfect love of her cub, who she nurses. She is a sovereign animal whose presence means our forests are still vivid and robust. Her life is in the crosshairs.
The policies and laws that govern management of the black bear, and all of Florida, are being chosen and determined by monied interests. The people of Florida must choose again.
Susan Cerulean is a Floridian and lives in Tallahassee. She has written or edited 9 books about Florida and its wildlife. Read the whole version of this column, and others, at www.susancerulean.com.