BY STAFF REPORTS
Lawmakers have proposed legislation in Florida that would authorize the killing of bears without a permit, in response to concerns about interactions with humans as its natural habitat shrinks.
According to two identical bills (SB 632/HB 87), Florida Statutes 379 would be amended to allow the use of lethal force against a bear in self-defense. Permits are typically required through the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) in certain situations.
Under the bills, the laws would not apply if a person intentionally lures a bear for the purpose of training dogs to hunt bears or provokes a bear to incite an attack. A person who kills a bear under the provision would not be subject to civil or criminal penalties, they must notify FWC within 24 hours, and they may not possess, sell, or dispose of the bear or its parts. FWC must dispose of killed bears and adopt rules to implement the law.
Sen. Corey Simon introduced the Senate bill, while Rep. Jason Shoaf introduced the House version with co-sponsors Reps. Dean Black, Joel Rudman, and Michelle Salzman.
According to FWC, black bears have lived in Florida for several thousand years, estimating that before European settlement, an estimated 11,000 bears lived throughout the state. As development continued throughout the 20th century, Florida lost more than seven million acres of forest and herbaceous wetlands to development.
The state estimates that roughly 4,000 bears currently reside in Florida, confined to roughly 45 percent of the species’ original range. Bears are typically found throughout pockets of the state, including central and eastern Florida, southwest Florida, and throughout the Florida panhandle and coastal areas.
FWC has recorded three documented incidents of physical contact between a person and a black bear in 2023, not including vehicles. In 2022, eight incidents were recorded. It’s unclear how many incidents go unreported. News reports indicate bears have been spotted inside people’s homes and at amusement parks within the last year.
In the past year, commissioners have expressed an interest in holding a bear hunt as a measure to control the bear population. In 2015, Florida authorized a bear hunt, which was halted after just two days after nearly 300 bears were killed. According to news reports, more than 3,200 hunters received permits. By the end of the first day, FWC shut down the central and east Panhandle regions after more than 100 bears had been killed. Animal welfare advocates have begun lobbying to stop the legislation from passing.
As legislators debate bear population legislation beginning in early January during the annual legislative session, the state continues to prioritize the Florida Wildlife Corridor, a law signed by Governor Ron DeSantis in 2021 that directs the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to promote investments in areas designated as part of the corridor, piecing together conservation land so animals can migrate throughout the state in areas that may reduce them wandering into neighborhoods and urban areas, reducing the number of incidents and animal deaths.
Since 2019, the state of Florida has invested $1.25 billion in land acquisition through the Florida Forever Program, including $850 million specifically for the Florida Wildlife Corridor, according to the state. In September, the Cabinet approved a $141 million investment in the Corridor, purchasing more than 42,000 acres of land.
Tips from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission for Bear Encounters:
- Remain standing upright.
- Speak to the bear in a calm, assertive voice.
- Back up slowly toward a secure area; be sure you are leaving the bear a clear escape route.
- Avoid direct eye contact – bears and other animals may view this as aggressive behavior.
- Stop and hold your ground if your movement away seems to irritate, instead of calm, the bear.
- Make any sudden or abrupt movements.
- Run – running can trigger a chase instinct and bears can sprint up to 35 mph.
- Play dead – black bears eat things that play dead or are dead.
- Climb a tree – black bears can climb 100 feet up a tree in 30 seconds.
- Approach or surprise a bear, especially one that may be injured.
If a black bear attacks you:
- Fight back aggressively. People have successfully fended off black bear attacks using rocks, sticks, or even their bare hands.