ORLANDO, Fla. -- Critics of Florida's bear hunt fear a slaughter of the state's largest native land mammal, arguing that the army of hunters starting next weekend will undo decades of conservation that led to the rebound of an animal once near extinction.
But state wildlife officials disagree, calling the claim a "factually baseless guesstimate."
They insist the "harvest objective," or kill quotas, are conservative and were set at 320 animals to protect Florida's unique subspecies of bruin, though 2,659 hunters have so far signed up with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to bag a bear.
The seven-day season begins at sunrise Oct. 24.
Because the state banned bear hunting in 1994, most Florida hunters have never tried to find a black bear in the woods of Ocala National Forest, Seminole State Forest or Rock Springs Run State Reserve, three public hunting areas in Central Florida.
"If you do it by the (Florida) rules, no dogs and no baiting, it won't be easy. It'll be a luck deal," said Brad McNaughton, the Central Florida Bear Hunters Association president who has hunted bears for 30 years -- often unsuccessfully.
"They're sneaky suckers," he said.
Diane Eggeman, FWC's hunting director, figures about 6.9 percent of Florida hunters will get one this year.
The estimate is based on hunter success rates in California, Colorado, Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Oregon and Washington, which stage annual bear hunts restricted by no-dogs, no-bait rules similar to those in Florida.
Bears are hunted in 31 other states.
"Other states have a much longer season than we have," said Eggeman, who described this year's hunt as conservative because of the restrictions, which also forbid killing bears less than 100 pounds and those with cubs.
If her prediction is on target, the hunt will claim 183 bears.
A smart, secretive animal with keen senses of smell and hearing, the bear poses a special challenge for hunters, said Harry Spiker, a wildlife biologist with the Department of Natural Resources in Maryland, which has held bear hunts since 2004.
Spooked by noise, a bear in the woods can disappear like a ghost, he said.
"They're a master of their surroundings," Spiker said. "You have to be patient, and you have to beat their nose."
FWC Vice Chairman Aliese Priddy, the lone wildlife commissioner to apply for a bear-hunting permit, doubts hunters will reach the limit.
"It's not easy to hunt a bear," said Priddy, adding that her view was based on talks with hunters, not personal experience. "You have to be at the right place at the right time when a bear crosses by."
She said she has never hunted bears and won't this year. Priddy said she bought a $100 bear permit to support conservation efforts.
Florida's bear population, estimated at 3,000 animals in 2002, has grown considerably during the past decade, said Thomas Eason, an FWC biologist known as "Dr. Bear." His estimate relies on recent scientific data and a pile of anecdotal evidence from human-bear conflicts reported to the state, including thousands in Seminole County.
As many as 1,500 bears could be roaming the Central Florida bear-management unit, an area that includes Orange, Lake, Seminole and Volusia counties, according to an FWC study that used DNA to identify individual bruins from hair samples.
In defense of the kill quota, FWC lawyers argued in court documents that "the likelihood of eclipsing the 320 bear harvest objective during the totality of the hunt is low, let alone during the first two days of the hunt," a worry of animal welfare groups.
FWC says they can and will call off the hunt if kill quotas are reached before the season ends.
But Chuck O'Neal of Longwood, who sued to stop the hunt, said FWC should have taken other precautions, including limiting bear permits and delaying the hunt until its science-based population study was completed next summer.
Many states limit permits, some through a lottery system.
Bear-hunt foes also found loopholes in Florida rules that could boost hunter-success rates, especially on private land.
While baiting is forbidden, hunters on private land can stake out "feeding stations" that have been set up legally for deer and other game but are frequently raided by bears. A hunter can't shoot a bear within 100 yards of a feeding station, but outside that boundary, it's legal.
"Where's the sport in that?" O'Neal asked.