TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- (By Jim Turner, News Service of Florida) The state would set aside $230,000 for bear-resistant trash cans and outreach programs to reduce conflicts between humans and bears, as part of Gov. Rick Scott's proposed $79.3 billion budget.
The money would be used to partner with residents, local governments and businesses as a way to prevent bear attacks, according to a press release that accompanied Scott's budget on Monday. The funding request will be considered during the 2016 legislative session that begins in January.
Center for Biological Diversity Florida Director Jaclyn Lopez said in an email on Tuesday that Scott's proposal "sounds like a great start."
Lopez's organization was among the animal-protection and environmental groups that supported a lawsuit seeking to stop last month's state-sponsored bear hunt. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission approved the hunt, the first of its kind, with the goal of reducing the state's bear population by 10 percent.
Scott's proposed spending alone won't fix Florida's bear problem, Lopez said.
"The biggest issue in Florida is habitat loss, so the state and bears would be best served by funding Amendment 1 and securing and protecting the land necessary for healthy populations of Florida wildlife," she said.
Amendment 1 is the 2014 voter-approved measure that requires 33 percent of an existing real-estate tax to be used for land buying and maintenance. Scott's office has estimated that $905 million will be available in the next fiscal year through the trust fund established under the constitutional amendment.
Speak Up Wekiva Director Chuck O'Neal, whose Seminole County-based organization is suing the commission over its approval of the bear hunt, said he is working with lawmakers on legislation that would restore the natural food supply for bears.
"Bear-proof trashcans without restoring the natural food supply will not solve the problem," O'Neal said in an email Tuesday. "If anything it will make it worse."
The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has requested legislative approval to use money from the sale of bear hunt permits to purchase bear-resistant garbage containers and to assist with on-going outreach efforts, commission spokeswoman Tammy Sapp said in an email on Tuesday.
"It's our goal to work with local municipalities and other partners to leverage even greater resources to get bear-resistant trash cans placed in high-conflict areas," Sapp said.
Scott's budget proposal came the same day that the governor's office released more than 9,700 pages of hunt-related emails --- many of which were duplicates --- sent to Scott between Feb. 1 and Oct. 6.
The majority of the messages opposed the hunt, with many asking Scott to overrule the commission. Some of the emails stressed the need to educate Floridians --- especially those who reside in areas where bears live --- about keeping pets on leashes and using bear-proof garbage cans.
When asked about the bear hunt, Scott repeatedly deferred to the commission.
"It is for FWC to decide what is best for Florida's growing bear population," Scott's office said on multiple occasions when asked about the commission's approval of the hunt. "Governor Scott trusts them to make the right decision to keep families safe.”
The commission had removed the black bear from the state's threatened list in 2012. Once down to as few as 300, the black bear population in Florida was estimated as topping 3,000 prior to the October hunt.
Opponents argued that the hunt wouldn't reduce incidents between the burgeoning black bear population and the more widely expanding human population in Florida that encroaches into the bear's natural habit.
In September, the commission asked Florida House members to designate $125,000 from the sale of the bear hunt permits --- which at the time had brought in about $200,000 --- for prevention measures to reduce human-bear conflicts.
When members of the House Agriculture & Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee called the commission's budget request "meager," Charlotte Jerrett, the commission's chief financial officer, said it was "a placeholder."
Eventually, the state sold 3,778 permits --- reaping about $377,000 --- for what was advertised as a week-long hunt. The permits cost Florida residents $100 and out-of-state hunters $300 for the right to each kill one bear.
The commission canceled the hunt after two days, as the number of bears killed quickly approached the quota of 320. Commission officials acknowledged they "underestimated the hunter success for the first day."