You might as well know up front, I am 100 percent behind the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) recommendation to allow a bear hunt this fall.
Let me tell you why.
It's because I'm a conservationist, not a preservationist.
It's because managing animal populations isn't new. It's because I've done this before -- had this homework assignment more times as a Florida journalist than I can count. Some species or another has been dying out or coming back ever since I arrived in Florida in 1977, and I keep writing about it.
And you know what? Every single time, FWC -- sometimes with the help of a federal partner -- has done its job, from bald eagles to panthers to alligators.
(I'm not saying if the FWC told me the sky is green and not blue, I'd believe them -- but I'd probably think about it.)
Black bears, Florida's largest mammals, are already a case in point.
Fewer than 300 bears roamed Florida in the early 1970s, down from the 11,000 thought to have been there when Spanish explorers arrived at the end of the 15th century. In 1974, the state listed black bears as a threatened species in the state. Twenty years later, hunting was completely halted. In many states bears still haven't recovered. But Florida is a different story.
The population rebounded amazingly well, and bears were removed from special state protection in 2012. Now wildlife officials say more than 4,000 black bears inhabit the state’s forests and swamps. Early last year, on a narrow vote of the FWC, a hunting season was approved to manage the population.
I hear people ask all the time, why do we have to hunt and kill bears to save them? Why don't we just get out of the way and let them sort their own numbers out?
The answer is, because bears don't do that.
A story in National Geographic last year told us that between 1990 and 2014, there were 49,000 total bear incidents across the state. "Incidents" aren't warm and fuzzy happenings, by the way. They include encounters with people at close range.
The average number of run-ins over the last three years was four times greater than it was a decade earlier. On top of that, there’s been a handful of maulings. The trend is only expected to continue.
Nick Wiley, executive director of FWC, told me this week that collisions with vehicles account for about 200 bear deaths in Florida every year, plus many "conflict bears" have been removed after getting into trash, causing property damage, or menacing/mauling people.
"We're not like some of the rural states," Wiley said. "Florida has few places to relocate these conflict bears. And relocation often doesn't work anyway."
One study suggests that almost 70 percent of relocated bears leave the area where they were released and half of all relocated bears return to the very kind of behavior that caused them to be moved. Wildlife officials have euthanized many problem bears.
Before you ask -- no, I'm not a hunter, in fact never hunted in my life, never owned a gun and I don't belong to the National Rifle Association. But I've lived in Florida since 1977, long enough to watch authorities struggle maintaining a balance between a growing human population and shrinking animal habitat.
The truth is, too many Floridians resent the FWC because of its close connection to hunters. They have it in their heads the commission is bought and paid for by the NRA.
For its story National Geographic reached out to half a dozen Florida bear hunters, but none wanted to comment on the record. One said he was concerned he would be harassed by anti-hunting activists if his identity was revealed.
There's no getting around the facts. Hunter conservationists underwrite and support politically a large part of wildlife conservation in Florida and the nation. Enjoying wildlife and its habitat is free to all, but the programs providing habitat conservation are not.
Florida hunters specifically pay for managing wildlife through the licenses and permits they buy. For instance, all adult waterfowl hunters purchase a federal duck stamp. It’s a program the hunters helped create in the 1930s. I'm not sure how paying a fee for a license is "buying" the FWC.
Last year's hunt was supposed to run for as long as seven days, but after two, hunters were close to their quota of 320 bears.
"A lot of people think that tells them how many yahoos there were out there blasting bears," one hunter told me, "but what it told me was, there were plenty of easy-to-find animals. I think the 4,000 bear population they talk about is probably more like 8,000."
Wiley said his bear team has "scientific methods" for keeping track of the animal populations, "although it's not so easy to monitor animals that move around a lot and are so secretive. ... We give the bear count a margin of error of between 5 and 10 percent.
Judge the competence of the FWC's bear program for yourself. Take 15 minutes to look at the the video, "Living With Black Bears." Click on this link or watch it at the bottom of this story. It was shot in 2009, so some of the numbers quoted are a little out of date. The program is still basically the same and the content is worth your time.
The black bear is an "umbrella species" in Florida, Wiley says. What that means is, if stewards of the environment manage to protect enough of the habitat of these magnificent creatures -- if they get that right -- they get it right for most of the other small, fur-bearing animals.
The proposed bear hunt would be broken into three four-day periods, with hunters applying on a first-come, first-served basis. Permits would be specific to dates and areas, under a staff recommendation that will go before the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission during a two-day meeting that starts Wednesday.
Hunting could be opened in 32 counties from Bay, Jackson and Washington in the Panhandle, east to the Atlantic. Nassau and Duval would not be included.
In Southwest Florida, the hunt would be "on" in Collier, Lee and Hendry counties.
Read more about the four options FWC will consider on the agency's website by clicking here.
I can't speak for the 30 other states that put together bear hunts, but I'm not worried about ours. Florida's conservation programs won my confidence a long time ago.
Reach Nancy Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith