A Florida Senate committee advances a bill to allow people to kill bears on their property

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Florida black bear
A Florida Black Bear rifles through a garbage can. Photo by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation commission via Flickr

By Jim Turner ©2024 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — People would be allowed to kill bears on their property without permits if they feel threatened but would face more rules about reporting the incidents, under a proposal that received an initial approval Wednesday in the Florida Senate.

While opponents called instead for better-managing trash in rural counties where interactions between bears and humans have reportedly increased, the Republican-dominated Environment and Natural Resources Committee voted 5-2 along party lines to support the bill (SB 632).

Bill sponsor Corey Simon, R-Tallahassee, said the proposal isn’t about bear hunting — long a controversial issue in Florida — but self-defense.

Simon said people can shoot bears on their property in situations of self-defense, but the Florida Fish and Wildlife and Conservation Committee has been “heavy-handed” by not giving them the “benefit of the doubt” after shootings.

“In the event that they (properties) do have to defend themselves, they risk losing property, risk losing their livelihood,” Simon said.

But Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, said she’d like to see more attention given to cleaning up trash that can attract bears and that the bill does not include “guardrails” about the use of guns.

“The response is not to create an untenable situation where untrained, unpermitted, more guns in dark places, with potentially children running around, walking down streets, being on a beach, and just shooting bears because you feel threatened,” Polsky said.

Under the proposal, people who shoot bears could not possess or sell the bear carcasses. It would also require people to notify the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission within 24 hours of bears being killed.

Also, people who provoke or lure bears wouldn’t be shielded under the measure.

Katrina Shadix, founder and executive director of Bear Warriors United, called the proposal “fear-mongering” over a local issue in Franklin County.

“The rest of the state has addressed this and we are fixing this, and we are peacefully co-existing with bears,” Shadix said. “We secure our trash and the bears don’t come around anymore. Franklin County, some parts of it, don’t have trash pickup. I went there. I counted 210 trash cans on the road, only one was secured.”

But Franklin County Sheriff A.J. Smith said bears are a growing problem in his rural Gulf Coast community.

There are “not hundreds of bears, but thousands of bears that live in my community,” Smith told the committee. “They walk up and down our streets. They go to the beach. They’re everywhere. This bill will make people feel confident in their homes that they can defend themselves without fear of arrest.”

Liberty County Sheriff Walter “Buddy” Money told the committee that bears are also an issue in his neighboring county.

“I’ve seen people taken to court when they defend not only themselves, but their property,” Money “When you say something is already (in law), we need something that says you will not be prosecuted.”

Supporters of the bill said “overpopulation” of bears in North Florida is also affecting farms.

A 2017 estimate by the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the most recent available, said the state had about 4,050 bears.

The last state-sanctioned bear hunt was held in 2015. It was expected to result in 320 bears being killed over one week. After two days, 304 were dead and the hunt was ended.

A Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission program, known as “BearWise,” outlines steps to reduce human interactions with bears, 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.

Simon’s proposal needs approval from two more Senate committees before it could go to the full Senate. A similar House bill (HB 87), sponsored by Rep. Jason Shoaf, R-Port St. Joe, has cleared one committee.

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