- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 15, 2020

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Florida lawmakers moved Wednesday to stiffen penalties against illegal bear hunting to further deter people from poaching once-imperiled bears that some now consider a growing nuisance.

A state House panel unanimously advanced a proposal that would increase fines and allow state wildlife officials to revoke hunting licenses for three years.

Last month, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission decided to keep the bears off limits to hunters, as part of a 10-year management plan.

While it remains illegal to hunt bears in the state, a sponsor of the bill, Rep. David Smith, a central Florida Republican, called the current law inadequate.

“We’ve had a problem with bear poaching,” Smith said in an interview. “As the population grew, we reduced the penalties to almost nothing.”

In fact, the penalties for killing turkey and deer out of season is more severe than killing a bear.

Legislation winding through both chambers of the Legislature would set the minimum fine for bear poaching at $750 - instead of the maximum $500 specified under current law. Hunting licenses could be suspended for three years, as opposed to the current yearlong maximum.

“With my bill, we put bears back on the same level as deer and turkey,” Smith said.

Bears numbered in the low hundreds in the 1970s and were declared a threatened species. But the bear population in Florida has exploded, with about 4,000 of the animals now roaming the state. Growing populations of the animals - as well as the rising numbers of humans in Florida - have led to confrontations as bears and people encroach on each other’s habitat.

The population explosion has caused concern, prompting the commission to draft a management plan that they said takes a scientific approach toward addressing the rising numbers.

For now, though, that plan won’t include hunting - although commissioners say they wouldn’t rule out future hunts when appropriate.

The commission last authorized a hunt in 2015 - the first in more 20 years - and hunters killed 304 bears in two days.

The hunt drew criticism from animal advocates. The commission reconsidered another hunt two years ago but declined then, as it did last month, to authorize another hunt.

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