Proposed statewide easing of bear killing draws sharp debate

A bill that would make it easier for people across Florida to kill bears if they feel threatened cleared its first committee stop in the Legislature, but not without criticism.

Proponents said it’s a necessary change to deal with a growing and increasingly confrontational population of Florida black bears, a subspecies unique to the state predominantly living in North Florida, the Panhandle and South Florida.

Opponents argued Florida law already allows for the killing of bears in life-or-death situations and that the blame for an uptick in bear run-ins, perceived or actual, is because of human actions.

The measure (HB 87), titled the “Self Defense Act,” advanced Tuesday on a 12-4 vote by the House Agriculture, Conservation and Resiliency Subcommittee.

If passed in its current form, it would provide that Floridians can use lethal force to “take a bear” on their property, without a permit or other legal authorization if they feel threatened and “believe such force is necessary to protect” themselves.

That allowance would not apply if a person lures or provokes a bear into a confrontation.

Anyone who avails themselves of this allowance would have to notify the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) within 24 hours of the incident, and they may not take, sell or dispose of any part of the animal. That would be up to the FWC.

Residents in North Florida have been “inundated with black bears,” according to the bill’s sponsor, Port St. Joe Republican Rep. Jason Shoaf, who credited protections under the state’s Bear Conservation Rule for an explosion in population and bear encounters.

“We’re told to blow whistles. We’re told to spray mace. We’re told to run. That is not what we need to be doing. We need to be able to protect ourselves and our property,” he said. “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). There are stories after stories.”

 Shoaf’s bill, to which Tallahassee Republican Sen. Corey Simon filed an identical companion (SB 632) that awaits committee referrals, attracted sharp debate and took up most of the committee’s two-hour meeting.

The preponderance of public testimony sided against the proposal, which many derided as both redundant and too permissive.

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.

Cullen noted black bears notoriously engage in “bluff charges” and similar actions that appear threatening but are almost uniformly benign and the result of the animal feeling fearful.

He then offered a suggestion many others who spoke against the bill echoed in their comments that the best way to reduce human and bear encounters is to make sure to bear-proof garbage cans and avoid leaving food out.

“They have a phenomenal sense of smell (and) can smell food from a mile away,” he said. “And if they come into the community, then they become acclimated to people and we have more encounters.”

Chuck O’Neil, Chair of the Natural Resources Committee at the Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights, said Shoaf’s “overly broad” bill would give some 22 million Florida residents license to shoot the estimated 4,000 Florida black bears in existence.

He referenced a bear hunt the FWC authorized in 2015 that officials halted in just two days after the killing of 295 bears, nearly 90% of which were killed on the first day. The FWC had expected that number to be reached in a week.

“Fortunately, the FWC had a circuit breaker. They said the executive director could step in and shut down the hunt if it were to go over the projected number … and he did shut down that hunt,” O’Neil said. “Where is the circuit breaker in this bill?”

Arix Zalace, who is making a film on the black bear and runs the nonprofit production company The Paper Bear, warned against passing the bill without first providing an educational program to reduce the problem.

“If you allow people to shoot bears, that’s not going to stop the bears from coming in until the education happens and until we really address things from the ground,” he said. “There’s a reason they protected the black bear, (and it’s because) they’re one of the most important animals … in terms of the health of our forest and maintaining the wildlife.”

Arguments against Shoaf’s bill ignore the reality many residents of North Florida are experiencing daily, according to Liberty County Sheriff’s Deputy Dusty Arnold. Fixing the issue isn’t as simple as safely disposing of trash and not leaving food out.

“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. “We’re starting to see a lot more bears hit by cars, so we’re having a lot of property damage everywhere. When it comes to supporting this bill, Liberty County is fully in support of it.”

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. “And I’m not a proponent of killing every bear you see. I’m not a bloodthirsty redneck. But I do want to protect our private property, not in the bear woods but at home.”

Weston Rep. Robin Bartleman 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.

Meanwhile, she said, there have been several alligator fatalities.

Bartleman said she researched the issue and found that the FWC operates bear management units in the east and west parts of the Panhandle that track bear statistics. Most calls it receives concern garbage cans and bears killed by cars. Just 1% have to do with safety.

The difference between HB 87 and Florida’s current lethal force allowance for bear confrontations, she said, is accountability. People in Florida, if threatened, can shoot and kill a bear today.

“But then there’s an investigation,” she said. “What this is doing is making it just a little bit easier, where people don’t have to worry about that investigation. And that’s a big part of my concern.”

That’s sort of the point, but any intimation that Shoaf is trying to create an open season on bears in Florida is a gross mischaracterization, Hillsborough County Republican Rep. Danny Alvarez said.

Education is important, he said. “But if you want me to balance the equities between people and bears, I want to look at you in the eyes and tell you that people are always going to win with me,” he said. “And really, when the FWC shows up and becomes your judge and jury in the middle of the woods in saying you’ve done something wrong — hopefully you were scared enough; hopefully you were threatened enough — what we’re doing (with this bill) is putting into code that if you do feel that threat, then you are justified.”

Danial Beach Democratic Rep. Hillary Cassel said she would vote “yes” on Shoaf’s measure Tuesday but said it needed more specificity and less reliance on “feelings” to secure her support moving forward.

Shoaf said he planned to refine the bill’s language. He encouraged those with doubts about the dangers bears pose to residents to simply Google “Florida bear attack.”

“I don’t know where they think this isn’t happening in the state, because it’s happening all the time,” he said. “It may not be reported. It may not make the news. It may not be a statistic. But it’s happened.”

HB 87 has two more stops — the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommittee and House Infrastructure Strategies Committee — before reaching a floor vote.

SB 632, which Simon filed on Nov. 29, still awaits committee referrals.



Jesse Scheckner has covered South Florida with a focus on Miami-Dade County since 2012. His work has been recognized by the Hearst Foundation, Society of Professional Journalists, Florida Society of News Editors, Florida MMA Awards and Miami New Times. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @JesseScheckner.


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