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Florida lawmakers hope to increase penalties for bear poaching

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(Courtesy of Florida Fish and Wildlife)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Cracking down on bear poaching is the focus of a bill that passed through its final House committee Thursday morning.

Florida lawmakers say the problem is more prevalent than they previously thought.

A bear hunt hasn’t been authorized since 2015. It took just two days for hunters to kill more than 300, prompting regulators to end the hunt early.

But bears are still being illegally hunted, and lawmakers seeking to tackle the issue have found penalties are surprisingly low.

“It’s less of a criminal penalty to kill a bear than to take a turkey one day out of season,” said Rep. David Smith

The bill quickly moving through the House would bring the penalties for poaching black bears in line with other game.

“It’s a common-sense bill that just brings bear poaching up to the level of deer and turkey out of season,” said Kate MacFall, with the Humane Society.

If the bill becomes law, killing a bear out of season would come with a minimum $750 fine and a three-year suspension of any Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission license or permit.

Smith, who is sponsoring the bill, said there have been at least 18 bear poaching cases in recent years, and possibly more.

“Some of the poaching goes on, on federal property, the Ocala National Forrest or on some of the military bases that aren’t really state property, so it was a much more prevalent issue than I thought it was,” Smith said.

While the bill is already teed up for the House floor, it hasn’t moved in the Senate, where it’s expected to be more controversial.

Sen. Bill Montford chairs the bill’s first committee stop. He said it will be heard, but some senators have hesitations.

“There’s a disagreement on the number of bears and a disagreement on how you deal with them if there are too many bears,” Montford said.

There are more than 4,000 bears roaming the state.

It will be up to lawmakers to decide if they need additional protection.