To the surprise of advocates and protestors alike, after hours of objections from animal-rights advocates and support from hunters, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at a June meeting here in the county narrowly voted down, 4-3, a staff recommendation to hold a second bear hunt in October.
In spite of dire predictions regarding massive and hostile demonstrations against the proposed 2016 bear hunt crowds remained small and protestors civil.
On arriving at the gymnasium of the Franklin County School, attendees were confronted by an area the size of a baseball diamond reserved for protestors, and for about a half hour prior to the meeting it was occupied by about a dozen activists carrying signs with messages such as "I'm not your trophy." "Killing is not conservation" and "Help us save bears."
The gym, set up with seating for around 400, was occupied by spotty groups adding up to perhaps 250 people.
The bear discussion began with lengthy lectures and PowerPoint presentations by FWC staff and Maine State Bear Biologist Jennifer Vashon, who flew down for the meeting.
At the end of the lectures, FWC Commissioner Ron Bergeron, the lone vote against the 2015 decision to reinstate the hunt, said data offered by FWC researchers appeared to be "a month away from completion."
When the public discussion finally began, about 80 spoke, and the two sides of the argument were simple.
Anti-hunt speakers argued the data supporting the hunt was incomplete, that the hunt was inhumane and that a bear hunt did not address the problem of human-bear interactions.
Pro-hunt speakers admonished opponents for questioning FWC's scientific data, rgued bear hunting is a part of their heritage and insisted the 2015 hunt reduced bear-human interactions.
On the whole, anti-hunt comments outweighed pro-hunt speakers about three-to--one.
Shirley Hutchins, of Eastpoint, spoke first, describing how her 15-year old daughter was the victim of a bear attack in Dec. 2014, and had received long-term trauma from her bear encounter.
"I have to force her to walk her dog sometimes," Hutchins said. "I support (a bear hunt) because I first hand seen it made a difference. As long as you can control it and there is no senseless killing, hunting has been a part of life. Bears and alligators are a nuisance in our neighborhood. They damage our property, kill our animals and now they're attacking us."
Max Spencer, who said he was a member of the National Rifle Association offered a faith-based justification for the hunt. "God said let men have dominion over all the earth. We have dominion. We are to subdue the earth," he said.
Conservation biologist Joe Guthrie, whose research formed the basis for the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition, offered a critique of FWC findings. He specified more information is needed on subpopulations; proportions of males to females; age of first reproduction; interval between litters and annual survival rate of adult female bears.
Elizabeth Neville, an attorney, spoke on behalf of the Animal Welfare Institute, an American, non-profit, charitable organization founded in 1951 with the goal of reducing pain and fear inflicted on animals by humans.
"Twenty-one percent of the bears slaughtered in 2015 were lactating mothers," she said. The Florida bear hunt may very well cause suffering and a protracted and painful death. There is massive public opposition to another hunt."
Trina Shaddix, a self-proclaimed hunter and gun owner with a "shooting range in my back yard," surprised some with her comments. "Anyone who says they kill a bear for food is lying. It tastes bad,” she said. Noting that she represented more than 500 Florida hunters who will not renew their hunting and fishing licenses this year to protest the bear hunt. She said this represents more than $70,000 lost revenue to FWC, and that the overtime costs and and other related expenses outweigh any revenue the hunt generates.
Florida's growing bear population was out of the hunting crosshairs for this year. But a one-year pause may simply help the state build a better case for a hunt in 2017.