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  • Writer's pictureTarryn Nichols

Bear-ing down on bears, Florida’s legislators vote to allow lethal force

Conservationists decry bill that could allow culling of Florida black bears, with consequences for biodiversity.

A hungry black bear runs out of food options in a shrinking forest. He widens his search across the highway, dodging roving headlights in a wide-eyed panic. A whiff of food draws his attention until he’s hunched over an open trash can, rummaging through the juicy insides. The sound of a gun cocking stills the night air. He doesn’t know what the sound means.

A bill on its way to the governor’s desk in Florida will allow a person to kill a black bear simply if they “feel threatened” or they “reasonably believe” their life or property is in danger. The bill could usurp the Fish and Wildlife Commission’s (FWC) authority over bear interactions by expanding upon the existing Common Law Defense of Necessity –– which already allows a person in Florida to defend themselves against wildlife if truly needed. If passed, the bill would reinforce a human vs. nature stance that many experts say exacerbates human-caused problems such as shrinking habitats and ignorance of wildlife behavior.

Implementation of HB 87 and SB 632, the “Taking of Bears,” could potentially make it difficult for law enforcement to investigate and prosecute anyone who kills a black bear. The bill says "A person is not subject to any administrative, civil, or criminal penalty for taking a bear with lethal force" as long as the person did not purposely lure the bear with attractants. They must then notify FWC within 24 hours of killing the bear. The bill does not include language about the consequences for not informing the agency.

Rep. Dean Black (R–Jacksonville) spoke in support of what he said was an “obvious common sense” bill during the 2024 legislative session. He said black bears are coming into Florida neighborhoods not because of a lack of habitat, but because bears are abundant – for which he offered no data. Black’s House of Representative profile identifies him as a small business owner and cattle rancher. He has a bachelor’s degree in political science, according to the profile.

Bears have forgotten that humans are at the “top of the food chain” and need to be reminded of such before they start eating people, Black said. He did not reference incidents of any human fatalities caused by bears. If humans “restore the natural fear that bears have of people, then nature will once again be in balance,” he said, though bears are not territorial and black bears are often not confrontational.

The bill, if approved by the governor, conflicts with a bear management plan updated in 2019 by the Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC), the state authority on wildlife encounters such as human-bear interactions. Black bears are currently protected under the Bear Conservation Rule which largely bans the shooting, killing or selling of bear parts in the state. This rule was implemented after extensive science-based review and citizen involvement and covers circumstances where one is justified to “take” a Florida black bear in self-defense.

Contradictions to the claims

Kate MacFall, Florida director of the Humane Society, argues the opposite.

“We're taking away (bears’) habitat. We're destroying their habitat. Development is off the charts. Then we're luring them, whether it's intentional or unintentional, into our neighborhoods and we're going to shoot them,” MacFall said.

MacFall says the bill “misses the mark” because it fails to include any language on education outreach and managing attractants, like open dumpsters, to prevent luring bears. She says this will promote apathy and laziness instead of people taking responsibility for their part in human-bear interactions.

“The message it sends to newcomers that move from far away and to young people is to not be tolerant and to not work to cohabitate. That I shouldn't have to bring (inside) my dog food, which, yeah, you can. You can feed them and then you pick it up and you bring it inside. If you cook something on the grill, scrape it off,” MacFall said. “Those are not Herculean efforts. Those are normal activities that I think are fair to ask of humans, and the message it sends to young people is that we can't be bothered.”

This bill does not address the root of the problem, MacFall says, because another bear will simply take the place of a fallen one if attractants are not properly managed. This will lead to the unnecessary killing of many bears rather than the collective effort needed to solve the issue. In a previous 2015 state-sanctioned bear hunt, Florida hunters killed 298 bears in just two days, prompting the state to close the hunt (which was to last a week) early.

Casey Darling Kniffin, conservation policy director at the Florida Wildlife Federation, said the bill sets a dangerous precedent in managing Florida’s wildlife. Her organization is one of several groups, including the Humane Society, actively advocating against the bill’s passage.

“It’s a very real public safety threat as well. I know I don't want people in my neighborhood shooting anything they think that looks like a bear. I used to have a big black dog,” Kniffin said. Opponents also point to people “baiting” bears into attacking by wounding them and causing them to respond aggressively.

The Florida Wildlife Federation website says that if the bill sets a harmful precedent by undermining the FWC’s constitutional authority, it could lead to the agency not being able to effectively manage the state’s diverse wildlife populations.

“I think the point is you’ve got the governor trying to supersede the state agency, the paid professionals, and they're overseen by his friends. Those are his friends that are commissioners now –– all seven of them,” Michael Moulton said.

Moulton is a professor of wildlife ecology and conservation at the University of Florida. He says the established bear management plan is thorough and no legal changes should be made.

On top of potentially infringing on the FWC’s constitutional authority, the bill promotes a narrative that black bears are overpopulating and are now a threat to human safety, which has been repeatedly proven false. The number of black bears is frequently overestimated by those who hunt them, Moulton added.

Orlando Rep. Anna Eskamani (Democrat) noted that black bears are “notoriously shy.” When she asked bill sponsor Rep. Jason Shoaf (R- Port St. Joe) during legislative debate how many Floridians the animals have killed, he was unable to provide an answer.

Benign bear-proofing

The diet of black bears is 80% vegetarian, with the rest of their food coming from insects or carrion, so the chance of them attacking a human or pet unprovoked is very slim. In all of Florida’s recorded history, zero people have been killed by a black bear.

To illustrate this point, Moulton said that when scientists gather samples from black bears for research, they use glazed donuts as bait instead of meat.

“The idea that they're lurking out there to attack people seems highly, highly unlikely to me. I'm not saying it couldn't happen,” Moulton said. “I'm just saying every time I've seen a black bear, they've been making a beeline away from where I was.”

Despite claims from the opposing side that trash management will not deter bears from searching for food in neighborhoods, bear-related incidents were reduced by 95% in Volusia County following a trash can initiative, according to the FWC. These methods of managing attractants have proven to be successful worldwide.

A call for bear conservation

A petition urging Governor Ron DeSantis to veto HB 87 has reached 36,701 signatures of its 50,000-signature goal. It calls for the preservation of the keystone species by rejecting legislation that is antithetical to conservation principles. Keystone species are ones that are bellwethers for the health of their environment. Florida’s manatees are also considered keystone species.

On top of managing attractants, other strategies – such as building more wildlife crossing tunnels under major roads – could decrease incidents with black bears and other vital species, said Moulton.

“I think if you pass this law, you'll see people pushing the envelope, so to speak… So, they won't just be happy, you know, banging cymbals to chase black bears away from dumpsters in Wekiva,” Moulton said of a small area in Florida. “They'll be able to go out there and shoot them and just say they felt threatened by them. And then, who's going to speak for the bear? Nobody.”


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