Florida Senate OKs Shooting Bears in Self-Defense

TALLAHASSEE — A controversial effort to strengthen self-defense arguments for people who shoot bears on their property is headed back to the Florida House.

The Republican-controlled Senate voted 24-12 on Wednesday to approve a bill (HB 87) that critics contend will result in increased deaths of the once-threatened species.

The House passed the bill last week. But the Senate made a change to make clear the 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 change means the bill will have to be considered again by the House.

Bill sponsor Corey Simon, R-Tallahassee, said the bill is needed because of an increase in bears venturing into residential areas of his sprawling North Florida district and that current law has a “little bit of ambiguity.”

“This isn’t a mandate by any stretch of the imagination,” Simon said. “If a bear shows up in your home, or on your porch, you’re not obligated to shoot that bear.”

The proposal, 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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Several Democrats who opposed the bill argued the state should do more to focus on other ways to limit human-bear interactions, such as expanding efforts to prevent bears from being attracted to trash in residential areas.

“We know this is a gun-happy culture,” Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, said. “And giving them the permission to shoot is what this bill is doing, instead of taking every single precaution that we could possibly take to prevent the taking of a protected species and potentially other human life.”

Similar bills did not pass in recent years. But the issue gained traction during this year’s legislative session after Franklin County Sheriff A.J. Smith in September said his rural community was “being inundated and overrun by the bear population.”

Bill supporters argued the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission hasn’t changed its approach to human-bear interactions, which includes its BearWise program. The 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.

The House voted 88-29 to pass the bill last Thursday.

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

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

Since that time, the state has held a single bear hunt. In 2015, the state held what resulted in a two-day hunt in four parts of the state, with 304 bears killed — 16 short of the so-called “harvest objective” expected over seven days.

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