NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
People would be allowed to kill bears on their property without permits if they feel threatened or think it is necessary for protection, under a bill that moved forward last week in the Florida House.
The House Agriculture, Conservation and Resiliency Subcommittee voted 12-4 to approve the measure (HB 87). Sponsor Jason Shoaf, R-Port St. Joe, said the proposal wouldn’t allow bear hunting.
“We are told to blow whistles. We are told to spray mace. We are told to run,” Shoaf said. “That is not what we need to be doing. We need to be able to protect ourselves and our property.
“They’re in our homes. They’re in our garages. They are attacking people. We had a young girl in Eastpoint that was mauled nearly to death (in 2014),” he said. “There are stories after stories.”
Weston Rep. Robin Bartleman, who voted “no” on the bill with St. Pete Beach Republican Rep. Linda Chaney and fellow Democratic Reps. Christine Hunschofsky of Parkland and Kelly Skidmore of Boca Raton, pointed out that despite an apparent rise in bear sightings, there have been no related fatalities.
Rep. Bruce Antone, D-Orlando, who supported the legislation, said he expressed concerns to Shoaf about people chasing after bears if the bear runs off of an individual’s property and still being able to use lethal force against them, but Shoaf told him the bill does not allow that.
The proposal would prohibit people from possessing or selling the bear carcasses. The proposal also wouldn’t apply to people who provoke bears. It would require people to notify the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission within 24 hours of killing bears. The bill is filed for the 2024 legislative session, which will start Jan. 9. Shoaf has been unable to pass similar measures in the past.
But the issue has gained attention since Franklin County Sheriff A.J. Smith expressed concerns in September about increased interactions between people and bears in Smith’s rural county southwest of Tallahassee.
The two-hour committee hearing was dominated by discussion of the proposed bill, led by opponents of the proposal who say the focus should be on improved trash management and education to help reduce human-bear interactions.
Katrina Shadix, founder and executive director of Bear Warriors United, told the House committee that Franklin County has a problem with unsecured trash. “I traveled there a few weeks ago. I counted 210 trash cans that were out by the road and 209 were unsecured,” Shadix said. “We know that by securing trash we reduce bear sightings and bear encounters by 90 to 100 percent.”
David Cullen of the Sierra Club said the bill duplicates much of what is allowed under what is called the common law defense of necessity, which permits the killing of a bear in lethal circumstances with no other option. He said black bears are known to engage in “bluff charges” and similar actions that appear threatening but generally benign responses to the animal feeling fearful.
Chuck O’Neil, Chair of the Natural Resources Committee at the Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights, said the “overly broad” bill would give some 22 million Florida residents license to shoot the estimated 4,000 Florida black bears in existence.
Liberty County Sheriff’s Deputy Dusty Arnold argued for the bill. “If you’ve got a dog, they’re coming in, they’re tearing your pens up, getting the dog food. If you have a grill out and you don’t clean it properly, they’re coming onto your porches and they’re trying to tear your grill open,” he said.
Albert Bryant, a beekeeper in Liberty County, said the bears were “pretty safe” 20 years ago, but their behavior has changed. “They do not turn around. They are not afraid of human scent at all,” he said.
Bear hunting has long been controversial in Florida. The last state-sanctioned bear hunt was held in 2015. It was expected to result in 320 bears being killed over a one-week period. After two days, 304 were dead. A 2017 estimate placed the bear population in Florida at 4,050. Sen. Corey Simon, R-Tallahassee, has filed the Senate version of Shoaf’s bill (SB 632).
Shoaf and Simon represent Franklin and Gulf counties and numerous other rural North Florida counties.
Times editor David Adlerstein added to this story.