The Senate Criminal Justice Committee passed legislation Tuesday increasing criminal penalties for bear poaching.
Sen. Tom Wright’s bill (SB 688) now heads to the Senate Rules Committee for its final committee stop before reaching the floor for a full Senate vote. The bill has faced no opposition and appears likely to go the distance.
If signed into law, the bill would increase the severity of criminal charges associated with bear poaching from a level 2 to a level 3. That means anyone caught killing or possessing Florida black bears outside bear hunting season would face a minimum fine of $750, plus a three-year hunting license suspension. The Port Orange Republican’s legislation has an amendment to clarify that the bill only refers to the illegal taking of bears. Florida has not had a bear hunting season since 2015.
The issue of bear hunting has become more striking because Florida’s black bear population has grown significantly in the past decade. Also, there is an international black market, particularly in some Asian countries such as China, for bear bile, which is viewed as traditional medicine. Bile is a secretion of the gallbladder.
The House version (HB 327) sponsored by Rep. David Smith, a Winter Springs Republican, passed the House last week.
“Bottom line: House Bill 327 puts bears on an equal level now with deer and turkey,” Smith said “It’s hard to believe, but today, when you can’t hunt bears at all in the state of Florida, it’s less of a criminal penalty to kill a bear than to take a turkey one day out of season.”
Smith told Florida Politics last month that there are reports of organized crime efforts to kill bears in Florida to obtain the bear bile, which can sell for thousands of dollars overseas.
Legislation doesn’t directly address the organized crime reports because federal authorities investigate poaching cases that are considered part of bear bile rings. Law enforcement can charge suspects in those cases with federal racketeering charges.
Scott Powers contributed to this report.