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A measure allowing the public to kill bears if legitimately threatened sparks passionate debate

Critics of the bill say the state should expand the BearWise program, which includes education and the promotion of containers to secure trash that could lure hungry wildlife
Tim Donovan
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
Critics of the bill say the state should expand the BearWise program, which includes education and the promotion of containers to secure trash that could lure hungry wildlife

Florida lawmakers have passed a bill that says people won’t be penalized for killing bears if they reasonably believe it was necessary to avoid an imminent threat. The measure hasn’t been sent to Gov. Ron DeSantis yet. Opponents say there are much better ways to manage bears than killing them – and that they’ll sue if the bill becomes law. There is great passion on both sides of the debate.

Under the bill, people wouldn’t 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 state within 24 hours and show they didn’t intentionally place themselves or pets in situations where they needed to kill bears. They wouldn’t be allowed to possess or sell bear carcasses after the killings.

Rep. Jason Shoaf, a Port St. Joe Republican who sponsored the legislation, says it has been sensationalized.

“We’re allowing Floridians to defend their property and defend their homes and defend their families," he said. "There’s nothing more American than that, and there’s nothing extreme about that. In fact, I would argue that any law that puts an animal’s life ahead of the safety and welfare of humans is insane. And we’re just correcting that.”

Supporters of the measure point to increased incidents of bears venturing into residential communities in Northwest Florida. Some want a sanctioned bear hunt.

Critics of the bill say the change will result in more deaths of the once-threatened bears. Julie Wraithmell, executive director of the conservation organization Audubon Florida, sent a letter to DeSantis saying the bill’s language is so vague…

“What this bill would do is actually allow homeowners and others to kind of shoot first and ask questions later," she said, "which is a scary thing.”

Wraithmell says large numbers of people are moving to Florida every week, and they’re not familiar with black bears.

READ MORE: Census data shows Florida has four of the country’s fastest-growing metro areas

“A lot of folks, when they think of bears, they think of grizzly bears and dangerous brown bears from out west in the Rocky Mountains," she said. "Florida black bears are not the same thing. They are generally shy and not dangerous. But they can become a nuisance, and that’s why addressing the real issue would help to solve the problem.”

She says that means funding solutions to get trash under control. It means education – which includes promoting containers to secure trash that could lure hungry wildlife.

Shoaf and others have taken steps to reduce lures to wildlife. The proposed fiscal year 2024-2025 budget includes $683,500 to provide bear-resistant trash containers to Franklin County, a fiscally constrained county south of Tallahassee. Neither the budget nor the bill about shooting bears have been formally sent to DeSantis.

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 bears 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.

Franklin County leaders say the bear population has rebounded to such proportions that they’re difficult to manage. Here’s Sheriff A.J. Smith, who supported Shoaf’s bill:

“We have bears in cars, we have bears in people’s homes, we have bears on porches, and we’ve had bears coming to a bus stop where kids are," said Smith. "I think we’ve had a couple of bears attack animals. We have not had, since I’ve been sheriff, an attack on a person. We’ve had a lot of close calls…”

Smith says as the bear population has grown, more bears are living where humans do.

“Could the county do a better job? Of course they can," he said. "But it’s about money, too. Everybody doesn’t have $300 or $700 to buy a bearproof garbage can or the means to secure it, so …The appropriation that FWC hopes to pass on to us would certainly be welcome to help us secure more garbage cans.”

READ MORE: One Florida sheriff says his county is being ‘inundated’ by bears

Franklin County Commission Chairman Ricky Jones says about 92% of the county is either state forest or national forest. And bears often come from their habitat looking for food – for instance, in Lanark Village, where a woman had a freezer in a shed behind her house because the house wasn’t big enough for it.

“…and the resident was told that if they got caught another time, they were going to arrest her for feeding the bear," said Jones. "The food’s inside of her shed and inside of her deep-freeze. I don’t think that’s really called ‘feeding the bear,’ but anyway, there’s been issues like that.”

But critics of the measure say shooting bears isn’t necessary and neither is the bill.

Joe Guthrie is a research fellow at Archbold Biological Station and director of the “Predator Prey” program there. He says there are black bears in many parts of the country and many communities that deal successfully with human-bear conflict. He advises managing garbage, educating the public and having direct communication with people about human-wildlife interactions.

“There’s a lot of expertise out there about how to effectively remove food attractants," Guthrie said. "And in the bear management world, it’s just the understanding that if you can deal with your food attractants, you can deal with most of your problem."

Katrina Shadix is the executive director of Bear Warriors United. She says the nonprofit began in 2015 when a woman who worked at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission challenged Shadix to come on a ride-along to a neighborhood where two bears were getting into the garbage and scaring the elderly residents. She then asked Shadix to help retrofit the containers with straps so the bears couldn’t get into them.

“’The residents are very scared, thinking the bears will knock them over and they’ll break a leg.’ And she said, ‘If you help us secure those trash cans, we don’t have to kill those two bears.’ So, I called her in three days. I said, ‘We have 60 people ready to volunteer.’ She goes, ‘That’s amazing, but I have bad news. The FWC is not going to pay for the bear straps.’ I said, ‘Just give me a minute.’ And it took about two days. I did my first Go-fund-me, raised over $2,000…”

Shadix says the group has mailed out more than 28,000 straps, free, to Floridians.

“We have saved governments and residents over $1.5 million by not having to buy the expensive bear-proof trash cans," Shadix said. "And we’ve saved countless bear lives and created a great working relationship with the FWC. So, when legislation like HB 87 comes up, where they’re just going to kill bears after they attract them out of the woods with their trash can – that’s especially egregious. And we’re going to make sure that bears will not be killed.”

Meanwhile, everyone is waiting for the bill and the budget to go to DeSantis. Bill sponsor Shoaf is optimistic.

“The governor’s office cares about this issue. They are concerned," he said. "They’ve been paying attention. They have offered to assist in any way. And so, I’m hopeful that that will survive it. And that we’ll be able to get some dollars down there for them to begin this bear-proof garbage can program.”

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Margie Menzel
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