Black bear activist and former Senate candidate Chuck O’Neal of Orange County is trying again with the black bear protection bill he coordinated on last year with Darren Soto – though this year he’s working with newly-elected Senator Linda Stewart, as Soto has moved on to higher planes of governance.
The bill, which was only in draft form on Friday, would enact a number of provisions to protect the state’s black bears.
Among those provisions are creating a bear-resistant garbage container account within the Nongame Wildlife Trust Fund, requiring the commission to establish rules for how local governments can purchase those cans, banning the harvest of palmetto berries, which are some of the black bear’s main food sources, adjusting the burn schedules for state parks containing black bears, prohibiting the sale of timber rights to certain trees in forests and parks where black bears live, and establishing a code designating black bear habitats and areas of human-bear conflict.
By adjusting the burn schedules, O’Neal said they could reduce and avoid incidents where bear cubs are burnt alive during controlled burns in the wintertime.
The palmetto berry issue comes from an unusual phenomenon in which palmetto berries are harvested in bulk and sold – especially overseas, Stewart said.
“There’s a market for them overseas,” she said. “Supposedly they’re like an aphrodisiac or something.”
Without the berries available in their natural habitat, Stewart said bears are more likely to come into human garbage cans to scrounge for food.
“They can be destructive,” she said. “They can tear down the screens, hit peoples’ swimming pools… if I walked outside to a bear in my pool I wouldn’t be too thrilled either.”
But the much-talked-about hunt in 2015, she said, was a disaster that she didn’t want to see happen again.
“They were killing mother bears that had cubs,” she said. “Killing bears in parts of the state where problem didn’t exist for them to be going into neighborhoods. It was not very well thought out, nor was it very well monitored.”
The overall effect the bill would have is protecting the black bear from unnecessary killing by lessening interaction with humans.
“If we continue to evict black bears from the forests by creating commercial timber projects out of their habitat, we should not be surprised to see them in our back yards seeking food and shelter,” O’Neal wrote to FloridaPolitics.com.
Stewart said the bill is currently seeking a co-sponsor in the House.