More than 200 protestors brought flowers and photos of black bears to a memorial at Lake Eola Sunday to remember the bears killed in the 2015 Florida bear hunt.
“We’re going to campaign wherever we have to and make sure that FWC is doing what it’s supposed to do for us and what it’s supposed to do for the bears — which hasn’t been done — and that’s [to] be proactive with enforcing the laws in the books that haven't been enforced,” said Fred Bohler, a former bear-response agent for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission who is against the Florida bear hunt.
The Florida bear hunt was closed after only two days, and a total of nearly 300 bears were killed throughout the state. The memorial was put on by the campaign director of Stop the Florida Bear Hunt, Adam Sugalski. Attendees wore black and placed flowers and photos in a coffin that symbolized the 295 bears that were killed by hunters in just one weekend.
“75 percent of Floridians are against this,” said Senator Darren Soto. “It’s not because they all don’t like hunts. They don’t like the way this went down. This was about people who just wanted to hunt and screw the science. These bears were endangered for a reason, there aren’t a lot of them.”
Sen. Soto, along with Speak Up Wekiva’s Chuck O’Neal, has begun the Florida Black Bear Habitat Restoration Act, a bill that aims to protect the black bears of Florida from future hunts.
The bill will compel the FWC, the Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Agriculture to protect the habitat of Florida's black bears by permanently banning the harvest of saw-palmetto berries that the bears eat and adjusting the burn schedule to prevent over-burning so that the berries can have time to grow back. It will also create a $50-million fund to buy bear-proof trash cans for neighborhoods to discourage the bears from entering residential areas and limiting human contact with the animals.
“Mark my words, these bears’ fates were sealed when Rick Scott was elected," Sen. Soto said as protesters cheered.
Sugalski is planning to create billboards advertising against the hunt, and is organizing another protest in the next couple months. Sugalski created a Facebook page that serves to inform those against the hunts of other events related to protests of the bear hunts in the state.
“We could use your support on the bill, we could use your support at the FWC meetings, we could use your support in the environmental preservation and protection committee and together we can make real change to keep the state going the way we want and protect our bears,” Sen. Soto said.
The next course of action is still in the planning phase, Sugalski said. Many of those who attended signed up for monthly newsletters for the cause to stay informed of the protests.
“I came to this event for closure so that we can start moving on, and start being productive to protect and prevent another hunt,” said Shirlene Stuckey, member of Animal Rights Foundation of Florida and Speak Up Wekiva.
Even though the hunting of black bears was approved in Florida this year, each speaker is certain it will not be allowed next year if everyone plays their part in preventing it.
“I have no words,” Stuckey said. “There are no words to describe this, it’s beyond evil. I’ll keep fighting for the bears, I’ll do whatever it takes.”
Sarah Gangraw is a Contributing Writer for the Central Florida Future.