TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Poaching black bears out of season in Florida would carry stiffer penalties under a proposal unanimously approved by a House panel Wednesday.
The vote by the House Agriculture & Natural Resources Subcommittee came as the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission next month is expected to consider a series of measures to manage the state's growing bear population, including the possibility of an annual hunt.
Rep. David Smith, a Winter Springs Republican who is sponsoring the bill (HB 327) approved by the House panel, said it is driven by constituents concerned about a proliferation of bears being illegally killed for their gallbladders.
"We're just making it tougher on poachers, make them think a little bit more before they go and take a bear out of an official season," Smith said after the meeting.
Bear bile, secreted by the liver and stored in the gallbladder, can bring in hundreds to thousands of dollars on the black market, where it is promoted as a cure for numerous ills.
"My work over the summer with Fish and Wildlife was focused on 19 incidents of poaching with this gallbladder ring," Smith said. "Working with the Fish and Wildlife Commission, I got exposed to the data and some of the other things that are going on. That's why I agreed to carry the bill."
Smith said he got support from House leaders before filing the proposal.
The measure was pushed by Bear Warriors United, which is based in Smith's Seminole County district, and has the support of the Humane Society of the United States.
"It's a good clean bill," said Kate MacFall, state director of The Humane Society of the United States.
The proposal, which must still get approval from two additional committees to reach the House floor, would make it a first-degree misdemeanor to kill a bear or possess a freshly killed bear during a closed season, up from a second-degree misdemeanor, and lead to the forfeiture of any Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission licenses or permits for three years.
A subsequent offense would make the violator permanently ineligible for any commission license or permit.
The forfeiture of a license could cross state lines through reciprocity agreements with 47 other states, Smith said.
Similar fines are already in place for poaching deer or turkey out of season.
"It has nothing to do with the legal hunting of bears when the season is open," Smith said. "It has nothing to do with you accidently hitting a bear with your car. It has nothing do if a bear comes in your yard and threatens your family."
The bill also would impose a third-degree felony charge on people who possess for sale or sell bears taken outside a designated hunting season.
Sen. Tom Wright, R-New Smyrna Beach, has filed an identical bill (SB 688) for consideration during the 2020 legislative session, which starts Jan. 14.
The state's bear population has grown from 300 to 500 in the late 1970s to more than 4,000, even with a controversial hunt in October 2015 that resulted in 304 bears being killed in two days.
Meanwhile, the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is expected to review a staff outline of techniques to manage the state's bear population during a meeting Dec. 11 and Dec. 12 in Panama City.
The updated 10-year plan summarizes several bear-management techniques that could be expanded or used, including contracted shooting and trapping, fertility control, manipulating habitats by reducing vegetation near suburban and urban areas, regulated hunts and relocating adult female bears and their 3- to 4-month old cubs.
Additional options include the continued use of the BearWise program, which started in 2016 and has used proceeds from sales of Conservation Wildlife license plates and legislative funding to assist local governments in providing residents and businesses with bear-resistant trans containers.
The plan also suggests working with the Florida Department of Transportation to reduce the chances of collisions between vehicles and bears, including the possibility of more fencing along bridges to guide wildlife under the roadways.
The goal is to keep the state's bear population above the 3,000 mark.
Florida has had 13 incidents since 2006 of people requiring medical treatment because of encounters with bears.