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Masters of the Hunt: Florida’s Black Bear and the Conquest of Nature

On October 10th, 2015, the small Central Florida town of Umatilla, on the southern edge of the Ocala National Forest, is scheduled to hold its annual Black Bear festival. The event, organized by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), has traditionally been aimed at educating young and old alike about the area’s wildlife, featuring presentations and guided eco-tours of the nearby forest. For a town that used to label itself “The Gateway to the Forest,” the event was a wholesome family activity and entirely fitting. This year’s event promises to be extra-special, for it will mark the two-week countdown to the resumption of bear hunting after a twenty-one-year hiatus, affording Florida’s families a wonderful new way to interact with their natural environment. It remains to be seen whether the organizers will set up bear-shaped targets for youngsters to aim at in Cadwell Park, or will hide the reality of the coming bloodbath behind their fraudulent and authoritarian claim of managerial responsibility.

Naturally, local sadists are positively salivating at the prospect, relishing the “new challenge” of re-affirming their position at the top of the food chain without having to book a flight to Zimbabwe, or acknowledging the hollowness of bravery subsidized by an overwhelming advantage in weaponry. The Orlando Sentinel reported on August 9th that 1,430 bear-hunting permits had already been purchased since sales began on August 3rd. The FWC has placed no ceiling on the number of permits it will issue, foreclosing the potential for a deep-pocketed defender of the bears to buy a large quantity of outstanding permits and prevent them from being used by hunters. Sales will continue until the eve of the hunt, and the hunt itself will last for 2-7 days, depending upon when the “harvest objective” has been met. (Link to pdf of official rules available here.) The cost of a bear’s life, according to the humans who will go on living when the last arrow has been released from its bow, is $100 (or $300 for out-of-state hunters). The National Rifle Association (NRA), eager to democratize the hunt and maximize the number of people who will experience the soul-enhancing epiphany of firing a lethal projectile at a large, sentient creature, has urged the state to reduce the fee to only $50. (New Jersey sells 10,000 bear-hunting permits to existing firearms-license holders for the princely sum of a $2 lottery ticket, truly a triumph for popular participation in the affairs of state.) But, in keeping with the nation’s revised, 1787-edition of its founding principles, democracy is a privilege to be extended only to those who will not abuse it by forgetting their proper place.

Real Men Don’t Play with Teddy Bears

As the administrative process ground down toward its predictable conclusion, the FWC went through the motions of inviting public comments on its proposed bear-management plans. Fully 75% of those comments opposed the idea of a hunt. A state-wide pollcommissioned by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) earlier this year showed that 61% of Floridians were against bear hunting, with overwhelming majorities favoring educational outreach programs and the widespread use of bear-proof garbage cans. When the HSUS delivered a petition to Governor Rick Scott with 90,000 names calling upon him to block the hunt, Scott deferred to the Republican-packed FWC, whose chairman, Richard Corbett, dismissed the concerns of these Florida citizens in the following way:

Those people don’t know what they’re talking about. Most of those people have never been in the woods. They think we’re talking about teddy bears. “Oh Lord, don’t hurt my little teddy bear!’ Well these bears are dangerous…. Do you want blood on your hands? We don’t. We have taken a step.”

Perhaps we should stop wallowing in sentimentality for a moment and be grateful that impartial guardians of the public interest like Richard Corbett have been insulated from public pressure by the appointment process. (We will showcase their impartiality in due course, one by one, to give them all the respect they deserve.) Why, if the FWC commissioners had to run for election, they might allow their judgment to be swayed by the tyranny of the bear-huggers, a prospect that would send chills down the spine of any constitutional engineer worth his salt. Proper decision makingentails sound scientific reasoning, a process best left to the experts and to philosopher-statesmen, n’est-ce pas? Mr. Corbett’s irritation is quite understandable, for a gentleman of such distinction should not have to tolerate such lèse-majesté. The staff on his 16,000-acre private plantation would never openly doubt his decisions, so why should anyone else?

We can begin to answer that question by noting that Mr. Corbett’s framing of the public-safety issue more closely resembles the defensive aspersions of many hunters (see, for example, the comments in this Field & Stream article) than a sober assessment of the facts on the ground, be that in the woods or in the suburbs that now sit where the woods used to be. The simple fact is that black bear attacks on humans are extremely rare (14 injuries since Florida started tracking in 1976), and when they do occur they are almost always the result of intentional feeding or harassment. The 2014 case of a Lake Mary woman who was mauled while walking her dog received a great deal of media attention, and had much to do with stoking the flames that will shortly roast the bears alive. The press did not devote as much attention to the subsequent revelation that the woman’s neighbor had been feeding bears and was prosecuted for doing so. As far as fatalities are concerned, there have only been two fatal attacks in the Southeast, both of which were in Tennessee. Even including Canada, humans are more likely to be killed by dogs and much more likely to be killed by lightning. Mr. Corbett’s exaggeration of the threat posed by black bears has been compounded by the hunt’s targeting of bears deep within Florida’s Bear Management Units (BMUs). Bears who have never been near a precious human’s garbage are to be summarily executed on the shaky grounds that population pressure within the BMU is driving excess bears out into the suburbs. The fact that a veritable infestation of humans has been scything into the woods, a matter to which we shall return, is not allowed to enter into this deadly calculus.

The weakness of the state’s public-safety argument has prompted a legal attack from organized opponents of the hunt. A lawsuit filed in late July by Lake Mary-based Speak Up Wekiva and Chuck O’Neal of the League of Women Voters alleges that the hunt is inconsistent with the Florida state constitution, which ordained the FWC with a mission to use sound science to preserve and protect wildlife. According to the Orlando Sentinel, the lawsuit argues that there is “no evidence to support the supposition that hunting bears in remote wildlife management areas will reduce conflicts in suburbia.” It also questions whether the state’s bear population can sustain a hunt as their habitat is eroded. O’ Neal argues that the FWC is packed with political appointees “and their agenda unfortunately is not preserving state wildlife. Their agenda is expanding hunting opportunities in the state of Florida.” (As we shall see, O’Neal is only scratching the surface.) The HSUS has argued, convincingly in our opinion (and we have been in the woods, Mr. Corbett), that the killing of bears in the middle of the state’s largest forests is not going to modify the behavior of nuisance bears in suburbia who have become addicted to human-supplied ready meals. As Anthony Rogers-Wright of New York-based Environmental Action put it, “bears don’t use social media accounts to send each other messages like #blackbearsmatter.” In response to such criticism, other FWC officials seem to have backtracked from the argument that the hunt is intended to protect public safety. Nick Wiley, the FWC’s Executive Director, contended after the final decision was taken that the hunt is simply another tool to “manage” the bear population. But that argument exposes the FWC to yet another charge that it doesn’t know what it’s talking about.

Habitat for Inhumanity

Quite apart from issues of appropriateness or morality, Florida’s bear hunt is an exercise in absurdity, for the FWC proposes to manage a population without even knowing how many bears we actually have. A full survey of the Florida black bear’s numbers will not be completed until next year. In the meantime, since guesstimates constitute a sufficient basis for policy-making, the FWC’s plan is based on figures from the 2002 survey, bolstered by constant assertions that the bear population has rebounded and constitutes a “success story.” It is quite clear that the FWC’s conception of success is one in which the carrying capacity of the bear’s existing habitat has been reached, but this is a grotesque conception indeed when that habitat is constantly shrinking as a result of human encroachment. From the bear’s point of view, the situation may be better than it was in 1974 (when their numbers had been reduced to about 300 and the state finally offered them some protection) but remains a tragedy. Statewide, the Florida black bear only has 18% of its original territory left, and even the FWC admits that a further 2.3 million acres of habitat will be lost by 2060. The invasive species responsible for all that habitat loss,homo sapiens, has been allowed to multiply without expressions of official concern that the state’s carrying capacity could be exceeded or that the human population might need to be “managed.” The FWC notes, on parts of its website that were written in less hostile times, that while there were only 5 million humans in Florida in 1960, there may be as many as 36 million by 2060 and this growth inevitably leads to bear-human conflicts. (The FWC does not mention that most of Florida will have run out of drinking water by 2030. It is an article of faith that there will always be enough resources: God and the market will provide.) On the verge of the 2015 bear hunt, then, a bear population estimated at 3,150 is considered to present an overpopulation problem, while a human population a hair under 20 million is to be accepted without question. The obvious victim of human activity is to be punished still more, unsafe even deep within the few remaining pockets of habitat we allow it to keep (for now).

And so it is that 320 Florida black bears – 10% of the estimated population – have been sentenced to die this October. The state expects a similar number to be killed by vehicles and other causes this year (never having bothered to invest in more tunnels under the roads that traverse bear country after building one very successful underpass on SR 46 way back in 1994), leading to a 20% total drop in the bear’s numbers. The result will be a “biologically sustainable population,” the professional term for a Holocaust. If the cull’s target is reached in two days, the hunt will supposedly be stopped; if not, it will run for a full week. Either way, the human population will grow by several thousand, sustainability be damned, while the bears are being killed. Given the number of permits being issued, and the “pent-up demand” for this kind of recreational activity, it is possible that the target will be exceeded before it can be stopped, though the state predicts hunters will have a low success rate. Dedicated as it is to numerical accuracy, the state has placed its faith in hunters complying with the request to report their kills within twelve hours of “the take.”  There has been no mention of how many FWC officers will be on duty to police the army of assassins that will surge through the woods that week. Excited rednecks, presumably, are better at self-policing than Wall Street bankers or the CEO’s of large hospital companies like, say, Columbia/HCA.

The state assumes further that hunters will not kill cubs under 100lbs and will not kill mothers with at least one cub in tow. If the hunter does not see the cubs, because the mother has left themunder cover while she investigates strange noises and smells, or if the hunter saw the cubs but wanted a return on his $100 investment (plus gas!), well that’s just too bad. Cubs that starve to death will be welcome additions to the mortality column. And while hunting with bait and dogs has been prohibited, leashed dogs are allowed for the purpose of tracking a wounded animal. The blood should add a nice early dash of fall color to the woods, our seasons being a little different down here. Sadly, the state will not be able to keep a scientifically precise record of the number of bears who escape “bagging” and succumb to their wounds later; it would have been most useful to have had an excel spreadsheet quantifying the degree of agony experienced and the coefficient of deterrence achieved. Nor will the bears be able to communicate to the FWC’s field staff just how delighted they are that they and their offspring have become successful enough to offer themselves as sacrifices on the altar of human progress, surely the supreme spiritual goal of any sentient creature.

A Breed Apart: Meet the Commissioners

As tempting as it may be to blame hunters for the bloodbath that is about to ensue, final responsibility for Florida’s bear hunt lies with the state’s political elite and its ideology. It is a noble tradition in the South for the ruling class to enlist the aid of poor whites, and have them vote against their own socioeconomic interests, by pressing some kind of emotional hot button. For many decades, the device of choice was racism. Today, the overlords’ task of coalition building is a little more complicated, but there can be no doubt that the hunting and gun control issues are marvelous tools in the plutocrats’ bag of tricks. (See, for example, our previous examination of the politics of wolf hunting.) Environmental activists like Chuck O’Neal need to be under no illusions that the animating force behind state policy is as simple as a desire to kill defenseless animals. While the Republican commissioners on the FWC may very well enjoy spilling a little blood themselves, what they really value in life is green, not red. And they won’t be sharing too much of it with the hunters who unknowingly facilitate its accumulation.

The membership of the FWC tells an instructive story about the reality of power in Florida. The slant toward real-estate development and construction is obvious, with a sprinkling of landed gentry for good measure. (Americans who have been instructed not to think in class terms fail to appreciate the aristocratic miasma that any British opponent of fox hunting could smell from three-thousand miles away.) Chairman Corbett serves as a prime example. In addition to running the aforementioned plantation, which has been in his family for 80 years, Corbett is President and CEO of Concorde Companies, a real-estate investing firm based in Tampa. He has done well enough to give $35 million to Notre Dame University. That kind of money comes from crafty deal-making, like his massive shopping mall by Tampa’s airport. Corbett used insider connections to have the parcel ridiculously undervalued and then negotiated a favorable long-term lease with the local aviation authority that will end up costing Hillsborough County $220 million in lost tax revenue. Very close to the Kennedy family in his youth, at some point Corbett made the same partisan move as most of the rest of the Southern elite and “served” on Mitt Romney’s national finance committee, hosting a high-dollar fundraiser in his country club home.

Vice-Chair Aliese Priddy owns a 9,300-acre cattle ranch just a few miles from the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. An avid hunter, Priddy is on record stating that she would like to see the panther recover just enough to be removed from the endangered species list, because that would mean a loosening of the regulations that prevent harassment of the big predator. She has since used her position on the FWC to attempt to advance that goal, recently drafting a proposal with Executive Director Wiley to seek permission from the federal Fish and Wildlife Service to transfer panther management to the state, thereby enabling a shift in focus from population-building to “co-existence” with human activities. Combining the same talk of successful recovery and threats to public safety as in the bear debate, but even more outrageous ecologically, the campaign against the panther has nothing to do with conserving wildlife but everything to do with conserving the profits of ranchers and land developers. When Priddy speaks of “putting people first,” it is clear which people she has in mind.

Commissioner Brian Yablonski is external affairs director for Gulf Power and an adjunct fellow with the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) in Bozeman, MT. According to the FWC’s website, PERC “is the nation’s oldest and largest institute working to use market principles to solve environmental problems.” We all know what that means, and Greenpeace verifies it, describing PERC as aKoch Industries climate denial front group. Full of Bush cronies, PERC has received significant donations from Exxon-Mobil. More on Yablonski in a moment.

Commissioner Richard Hanas is senior vice president of A. Duda & Sons, Inc., a real estate investment company. Starting with sod and vegetable growing, Duda diversified into planned developments, selling agricultural lands to builders when peak value has arrived. So, lots of potential residents driving up housing prices – good; fear of bear attacks in new subdivisions – bad. Check and check.

Commissioner Charles W. Roberts III is president of a construction company involved mostly in paving. The Tampa Bay Times reportedthat his companies have a history of environmental infractions, although Roberts failed to see how that was relevant to his appointment to the Wildlife Commission. As the owner of the Pinckney Hill quail hunting plantation, Roberts should get along swimmingly with Yablonski, who penned a nauseatingly sycophantic screed for PERC explicitly arguing that private plantations for the wealthy few constituted a superior preservation strategy to “government approaches” such as protected-species status and conservation land purchases. Isn’t it reassuring to know that such sentiments can find their proper expression in the public sector?

Commissioner Bo Rivard is a lawyer. As co-owner of a Dunkin’ Donuts in Panama City Beach, Rivard played a pivotal role in the infamous 2009 firing of Dr. Jason Newsom, the army medic who returned from Iraq to run the Bay County Health Department and launched a crusade against junk food. After the electronic sign outside the Health Department ran health warnings that included “Doughnuts Diabetes”, “Dunkin’ Donuts Death”, and “America Dies on Dunkin’,” Rivard and others threatened to sue, leading to Newsom’s ouster. In a county with a 25% obesity rate, Newsom’s effective education campaign was seen as hostile to business interests. Rivard obviously understands the all-American principle that profit is more important than people.

Commissioner Ron Bergeron owns a variety of businesses, including the largest road contracting and site-development company in the state and a real-estate development company. A colorful figure known for alligator wrestling, airboating, and driving a gold-plated Hummer, Bergeron was the only one to vote against the hunt, arguing that more time was needed for proper study. Bergeron also blocked Aliese Priddy’s plan for the panther, relying on his knowledge of the Everglades to point out that huge areas of potential habitat have been made inaccessible to the cats by the water levels caused by restoration efforts. Such eccentricity, it would seem, is to be tolerated as a token gesture toward diversity of opinion on the FWC.

These, then, are the masters of the hunt: owners and faithful servants, white, wealthy, unelected, and utterly devoted to the pursuit of profits. Eager to do some of the dirty work themselves, they set the example for the lower orders to follow. Consummate apex predators, they are the perfect representatives of mankind in its dealings with the natural world.

The Conquest of Nature

Officially regarded as endangered as recently as 2012, and still actually endangered now, no matter what the officials say about the “success” of its recovery, the Florida black bear – a genetically unique subspecies – has seen its life devalued to less than a monthly cable bill for the human households now occupying what used to be its territory. Like Palestinians on the West Bank of the Jordan, its ancestral lands have been dissected and demarcated by a powerful, self-righteous invader, its prospects grievously circumscribed, its right even to exist barely acknowledged. Now it will be reminded of its subordinate status by the human conqueror, the “master species” that lords over the rest of nature with the same, brutal arrogance exhibited by the Spanish, the English, and the Zionists in their various colonial possessions. While the brains of Florida hunters may be able to manage the physical task of shouldering a firearm (any natural inclination not to shoot another living thing having been deliberately short-circuited by social pressure), they are utterly incapable of perceiving the immorality of this larger picture. They, and the power structure they help support, have not yet evolved beyond the colonial pathology of taking land and resources by force. For those of us who have, the ultimate question is how far we are willing to go to resist their depredations. We do not have long to provide an answer: our friends are hanging on for dear life.

 

 

 

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Richard Foster lives in Central Florida. His writing appears at www.DailyKumquat.com.

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