TALLAHASSEE - Florida has a "robust" and growing bear population, according to the latest state estimate. But a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission official said Thursday it remains premature to speculate about whether a bear hunt will be held this year.
The latest Florida black bear estimate puts the overall population at 4,350 adults, of which 4,220 are believed to be in five areas of the state.
"We're having more bears born and surviving than are dying," Thomas Eason, the commission's director of habitat and species conservation, told reporters in a conference call. "For a large carnivore like a black bear, these are pretty substantial growth rates that we're seeing."
The overall number --- based on surveys conducted before a two-day hunt in October in which more than 300 bears were killed --- is up from the estimated 2,640 last year in those five management areas, Eason said.
Eason, noting the latest numbers show the population is "robust" and "growing," said the agency also estimates that bears are now breeding about 2,000 cubs a year in the state.
The bear population had been as low as 300 to 500 statewide in the 1970s, when bears were put on the state list of threatened species because of a mix of hunting and humans impacting their natural habitat.
Bears were removed from the list in 2012 when a new management plan was approved.
Asked if the increased number would support a recommendation from staff to hold a hunting season later this year, Eason said the agency continues to evaluate the updated population numbers and the results of the 2015 hunt.
"There is no proposal on the table right now, so I can't tell you what we may or may not do," Eason said. "I can tell you our researchers, our management staff, we're all in this because we care deeply about bears and we definitely are going to continue to take conservative approaches on all of our management."
Last year, a planned week-long hunt was shortened to two days after 304 bears were killed, 16 short of the so-called "harvest objective." The goal of the hunt was to slow the bear population growth, Eason said.
Conservation groups headed by the Center for Biological Diversity and the Animal Legal Defense Fund have petitioned the federal government to approve an endangered-species protection designation for Florida black bears.
Jacki Lopez, the Center for Biological Diversity's Florida director, said that while she hadn't been able to review the new numbers they shouldn't affect the groups' petition.
"I don't see how the new numbers could change the fact that the populations are extremely fragmented and face mounting threats from human population growth which will further isolate them and make them vulnerable to mortality from roads and proximity to urban areas," Lopez said in an email.
Eason said the hunt was just one measure used to reduce dangerous interactions between bears and humans.
In 2015, lawmakers increased penalties for people who repeatedly are found feeding bears not in captivity. Eason said "roughly" 125 to 150 people were ticketed last year under the new rule.
This year, Florida lawmakers included $500,000 to reduce human-bear conflicts in the state's new $82 billion budget. The money is to match local dollars in purchasing bear-resistant garbage containers.
The Center for Biological Diversity estimates at least 590 bears were killed in Florida last year, when factoring in the hunt, habitat loss and road kill.
The updated numbers from the commission are based on surveys conducted last year in three of the management areas and in 2014 in two other areas.
The latest numbers from the two-year survey show an estimated 1,080 bears were in the eastern Panhandle region, which includes the northwestern Big Bend area to west of Apalachicola Bay, up 80 percent from 2002.
With 1,150 bears, the South region --- Broward, Collier, Hendry, Lee, Miami-Dade, Monroe, and Palm Beach counties --- saw a 64 percent growth in the same period.
The bear population has also grown 75 percent since 2002 in the western Panhandle, where 140 bears were estimated. The western Panhandle was not opened to hunting last year.
The state has placed the bear population at 620 in the North region, which goes from Jacksonville west to Hamilton and Suwannee counties, and 1,230 bears in the Central region, which includes the St. Johns River watershed to the Ocala National Forest.