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DeSantis signs bear bill, vetoes left-lane crackdown

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday signed a controversial measure that will bolster self-defense arguments for people who kill bears on their property, while vetoing a bill that would have prevented motorists from cruising in the left lanes of highways.

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DeSantis’ office announced Friday night that he had signed 14 bills from this year’s legislative session and vetoed three. Among the other bills he signed was a measure (SB 7014) that revamped ethics laws.

The bill about bears (HB 87) provides a sort of stand-your-ground defense for people who shoot bears to defend themselves or property. But with bear hunting long a controversial issue in Florida, opponents of the bill said it would lead to increased deaths of the once-threatened animals. Opponents said they will consider legal action to try to halt the law, which is scheduled to take effect July 1.

Under the bill, shooters will have to notify the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission within 24 hours of bears being killed. They also will be prohibited from possessing or selling bear carcasses.

Legal immunity will not be available to people who provoke or lure bears.

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Similar bills were filed in past years but did not pass the Legislature. This year, however, the proposal sponsored by Rep. Jason Shoaf, R-Port St. Joe, and Sen. Corey Simon, R-Tallahassee, gained traction in September after Franklin County Sheriff A.J. Smith said his rural community was “being inundated and overrun by the bear population.”

Shoaf and Simon represent Franklin County as part of sprawling, largely rural districts.

But animal-rights activists argued the bill will create an “open season” on bears.

“Increasing the killing of Florida’s iconic black bears under the guise of self-defense –– without requiring proof of actual danger --- poses serious public safety risks and undermines responsible wildlife management,” Kate MacFall, Florida state director at the Humane Society of the United States, said in a prepared statement.

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MacFall said the bill conflicts with regulations of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which has the constitutional authority to manage wildlife. She added her organization “will continue to explore our options moving forward to ensure Florida’s bears are protected.”

Opponents of the bill said the state and communities should focus on securing garbage so bears will not be attracted to homes. The commission’s BearWise program outlines steps such as telling people not to feed bears, to clear grills, to make trash less accessible, to remove bird feeders when bears are active and to not leave pet food outside.

Sierra Club Florida, which has also argued the bill usurps the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s constitutional authority, said it is “a dangerous solution to an imaginary problem.”

Under current law, people are prohibited from possessing, injuring or shooting bears but can use non-lethal means to scare away bears that may be on the people’s property or rifling through trash.

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As the state’s number of residents has grown, human-bear conflicts have increased. The commission euthanized an average of 38 bears annually between 2009 and 2018 because of public-safety risks, mostly as bears sought out unsecured garbage or other food.

The Senate voted 24-12 to approve the bill, while the House passed it in an 83-28 vote. Rep. Allison Tant, D-Tallahassee, said bears threaten farmers’ livestock in her district, which includes rural Madison and Jefferson counties.

“We do have bear-proof garbage cans,” Tant said in March. “And you know what, oftentimes, after the garbage is picked up, the tops are not secured again. So, the bears come back and come back and come back.”

Meanwhile Friday, DeSantis vetoed a bill (HB 317) that would have prevented drivers from cruising in left lanes of highways with at least two lanes and speed limits of at least 65 mph. The bill included exemptions for drivers passing other motorists, preparing to exit, turning from left lanes or being directed to left lanes by officers or traffic-control devices.

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In a veto letter, DeSantis said the bill was “too broad” and that it could result in motorists “being pulled over, ticketed, and fined for driving in the furthest left lane even if they are not impeding the flow of traffic of if there are few or no other cars in the immediate area.”

DeSantis added that the measure, which was unanimously approved by the Senate and drew only three dissenting votes in the House, could “potentially increase congestion in Florida’s urban areas as drivers may decide to not utilize the furthest left-hand lane at all for fear of being ticketed.”

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