WEST PALM BEACH — Black bears in Florida will no longer be considered a threatened species under a plan approved today by wildlife commissioners.
The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission ended the decades-old protections for the Florida black bear, a subspecies of the American black bear, during a meeting in Palm Beach Gardens. The change came despite the protest of wildlife advocates, but after a rebound in the bear population around the state.
"This is a success story," insisted Kathy Barco, chair of the commission.
Though the removal of the bear from the state's threatened species list does not allow hunting of the animals, it will be reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor. A parade of individuals who objected to the delisting tried to convince commissioners they were acting prematurely.
"We're not there yet," said Drew Martin of the Sierra Club. "We still have a long way to go."
Florida black bears were once found throughout the state, but their population was decimated by hunting and development. The threatened species protection has been credited with their rebounding population, with around 3,000 bears now believed to be alive. A bear management plan approved by the commissioners establishes seven areas in the state where populations will be monitored.
"They may have rebounded, but they're still in trouble," Matt Schwartz, executive director of the South Florida Wetlands Association, said in an interview.
One of the commissioners, Ron Bergeron, said shooting or poaching a bear should remain a felony, but still voted in favor of the delisting.
"We're recognizing the science and the surveys that we have conducted with the wonderful story of the great success here," he said.
Schwartz, in his testimony to the commission, said "You're flipping a coin and saying, 'Let's delist.' This is a ridiculous decision."