TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – Florida lawmakers might increase penalties for people repeatedly caught feeding bears and alligators.READ MORE: Small But Ferocious Hurricane Sam Strengthens Some More
Yet, individuals caught the first time illegally slipping food to certain types of wildlife not in captivity — bears and gators, along with foxes, raccoons, sandhill cranes, pelicans, and bald eagles — would only get non-criminal tickets, under a proposal starting to move in the House.
The proposal comes as the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission considers rules to allow limited hunting of bears, which are attracted to populated areas by unsecured trash.
The House Agriculture & Natural Resources Subcommittee on Tuesday agreed to support a bill (PCB ANRS 15-02) that would revamp penalties, including making it a felony for people caught feeding bears and alligators a fourth time.
Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora, said the current penalty structure, which imposes a second-degree misdemeanor on first-time violators illegally feeding wildlife, is “really hurting our ability to educate these individuals.”
The proposal is backed by the state agency, which expects a brief uptick in tickets to first-time offenders if the measure becomes law.
Wildlife officials are now “generally hesitant to issue a criminal citation to a first time offender,” according to a House staff analysis of the proposal.
The belief from the Fish and Wildlife agency is that by removing the stricter penalty for first-time offenders, there will be less chance those people will repeat as they learn the rules.
“Once issued a civil penalty, first time offenders should better understand the serious nature of violating the feeding rules,” the analysis said. “Therefore, these individuals will be less likely to incur criminal violations for future violations.”
A second-degree misdemeanor charge carries a penalty of up to $500 and up to 60 days in jail.READ MORE: Lines Of Mourners Pay Their Respects Sunday For Gabby Petito
Under the proposal backed by Sullivan, first-time violators, regardless of the wildlife illegally fed, would receive a “noncriminal infraction” carrying a $100 fine.
The second-degree misdemeanor charge would kick in for people caught a second time.
Those caught feeding bears and gators a third time would receive a first-degree misdemeanor, while additional violations involving foxes, raccoons, sandhill cranes, pelicans, and bald eagles would remain a second-degree offense.
Rep. Katie Edwards, a Plantation Democrat who is an advocate for sentencing reform, asked Sullivan to revisit the penalties related to possible jail time for people feeding wildlife.
“Encouraging jail time is a bit excessive,” Edwards said. “There are other ways to better deter those folks than jail time.”
A third-degree felony charge involving feeding bears and alligator on fourth and subsequent convictions could carry a fine of up to $5,000 and the chance to spend up to five years in jail.
Currently, a fourth offense of illegally feeding wildlife within a 10-year period is a first-degree misdemeanor, which carries a minimum fine of $750, the chance for up to a year in jail and a three-year suspension of any recreational license.
Last Wednesday, the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission directed its staff to move forward with plans to address dangerous interactions between humans and black bears.
That includes proposing a draft rule in April that would allow hunting of bears, possibly as soon as this fall.
Thomas Eason, a division director with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, told reporters Thursday that bears are attracted to suburban neighborhoods because of easy access to food.MORE NEWS: Blue Alert Issued Out Of North Florida County For Patrick McDowell, Accused Of Murdering Deputy During Traffic Stop
This report is by Jim Turner with The News Service of Florida.