Killing a Florida black bear would cost poachers a minimum of $750 under a proposal pending before the legislature. According to the state, there are more than 4,000 black bears living in Florida.
“It’s less of a criminal penalty to kill a bear than to take a turkey one day out of season. This bill just puts [bears] on an equal level with deer and turkey," said Rep. David Smith (R-Winter Springs). He’s hoping to raise fines for people who illegally kill black bears. His proposal would also suspend a hunter’s license for three years. That’s an increase over the current rules that set a maximum fine for poaching at $500. Repeat offenders could get fined up to $1,000 or jailed for one year.
"It has nothing to do with the legal hunting of bears when a season is open. It has nothing to do with you accidentally hit a bear with your car. It has nothing to do if a bear comes in your yard and threatens your family and you defend yourself and your family. This deals with poaching and poaching only," Smith said.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) estimates about 14 black bears were illegally killed each year between 2009 and 2018. Those numbers exclude an authorized hunt in 2015 and euthanasia by the agency. According to the group’s bear management plan, the number of bears killed illegally is fairly low and happens mostly from human-bear conflicts—not poachers. However, Katrina Shadix, Director of Bear Warriors, a bear conservation group, questions that.
“People are really good at getting rid of the evidence," Shadix said. She brought the proposal to Smith. Shadix says despite the FWC citing car crashes as the leading cause of black bear deaths, there is still a poaching problem.
“There’s a motto in the trapping industry and probably in the poaching industry—it’s shoot, shovel, shut up," Shadix says. She points to a case in 2017 where a man was caught poaching a black bear in the Apalachicola Wildlife Management Area. After being caught, the man admitted to killing five bears. He ended up paying a total of $275 in fines and was sentenced to 60 hours of community service.
Smith’s bill passed its last committee stop unanimously. It will now be heading to the House floor. The Senate version has not yet been heard.