DeSantis to Get Bill on Shooting Bears

TALLAHASSEE — In an issue stemming from complaints about bears in Northwest Florida, the state House on Thursday gave final approval to a bill that would bolster self-defense arguments for people who kill bears on their property.

The House on Thursday voted 83-28 to pass the bill (HB 87), which opponents said will result in increased deaths of once-threatened bears.

The Senate approved the measure Feb. 21, meaning it is now ready to go to Gov. Ron DeSantis. Senators changed an earlier House version of the bill by spelling out that self-defense protections wouldn’t be available to people who lure bears with food or in other ways for purposes such as training dogs to hunt bears.

The House accepted the change on Thursday before passing the bill. House sponsor Jason Shoaf, R-Port St. Joe, said state law already prohibits people using treats such as “doughnuts or honey” to lure bears.

The bill, in part, says people would not be subject to penalties for killing bears if they “reasonably believed that his or her action was necessary to avoid an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury to himself or herself or to another, an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury to a pet or substantial damage to a dwelling.”

People who shoot bears would be required to notify the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission within 24 hours and show they did not intentionally place themselves or pets in situations where they needed to kill bears. Also, people would not be allowed to possess or sell bear carcasses after the killings.

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Shoaf unsuccessfully pushed the proposal in recent years, but the issue drew attention in September when Franklin County Sheriff A.J. Smith said his rural community was “being inundated and overrun by the bear population.” Shoaf and Senate bill sponsor Corey Simon, R-Tallahassee, represent sprawling rural districts that include Franklin County.

Critics of the bill said the state and communities should focus on securing garbage so bears will not be attracted to homes. The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s BearWise program outlines steps such as telling people not to feed bears, to clear grills, make trash less accessible, remove bird feeders when bears are active and to not leave pet food outside.

Rep. Katherine Waldron, D-Wellington, argued the bill is “based on fear and not facts.”

“Make no mistake, this bill was created by and for people looking for any excuse to be able to hunt and kill a bear,” Waldron said. “In this bill, there are no mechanisms in place to prevent people from killing too many bears.”

Killing bears has long been a controversial issue in the state. Florida’s last sanctioned bear hunt was in 2015, though calls have continued for the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to approve another hunt.

Bill supporters Thursday pointed to increased incidents of bears venturing into residential communities in Northwest Florida, with Rep. Joel Rudman, R-Navarre, saying there’s “going to be no mass murders of bears.”

“In our neck of the woods, we have a huge, tremendous amount of property that humans are not allowed to go on. It’s called the Eglin (Air Force Base) reservation,” Rudman said. “We’re talking 474,000 acres where these bears should stay, but they don’t. They travel off the reservation and they come into our neighborhoods. These are neighborhoods that have been established since 1980.”

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Rep. Allison Tant, D-Tallahassee, said bears threaten farmers’ livestock in her district.

“We do have bear-proof garbage cans,” Tant said. “And you know what, oftentimes, after the garbage is picked up, the tops are not secured again. So, the bears come back and come back and come back.”

The state had about 4,050 bears, according to a 2017 estimate by the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the most recent available data.

The numbers had fallen to between 300 to 500 in the 1970s, but the species was able to rebound while listed by the state as threatened. That designation was lifted in 2012 when a new management plan was approved.

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