LECANTO — Brad Rimbey was livid at the possibility that one of his favorite hiking and biking spots near his home in southern Citrus County might end up part of a designated hunting area.
Rimbey was among about 75 people who turned up at a public hearing Thursday in Lecanto to speak about the Southwest Florida Water Management District's evaluation of whether to allow limited, small-game hunting in four acreages it owns and manages in Sumter, Hernando, Citrus and Marion counties.
Rimbey said the safety of hikers, kayakers and others who use the land would be in jeopardy.
"There are people in the area all the time, and no one is going to be paying attention to whether someone is hunting near them," Rimbey said. "I think it would be just too dangerous."
Representatives from the Audubon Society, the Gulf Coast Conservancy and other groups interested in outdoor recreation also weighed in against the proposal and argued that threatened and endangered wildlife would be disturbed.
But Byron Maharrey of the Everglades Coordinating Council, a South Florida sportsman-hunter group, said the district's proposed seasons were short enough to not cause any undue stress on wildlife.
"If anything, it's barely minimum," Maharrey told Swiftmud officials. "It goes along with the idea of fairness. Hunters pay taxes, too."
Hunting on the properties, which include the Chassahowitzka River and Coastal Swamps, Lake Panasoffkee, Halpata Tastanaki Preserve, and Weeki Wachee Preserve, have been previously off-limits according to Swiftmud rules.
But the agency has spent much of the past year evaluating whether those rules need to be changed to fit in more with other water management agencies in the state that allow hunting in non-wildlife management areas.
The largest single tract under consideration is 8,148 acres in the Halpata Tastanaki Preserve along the Withlacoochee River in Marion County, which would be open for 26 total hunting days.
The preserve is one of the few remaining habitats for the threatened Florida scrub jay. Environmental activist Paul Marraffino of Dunnellon said that allowing hunting in the preserve would further add stress to the species.
"It would be something we could never get back again," Marraffino said.
Swiftmud officials said they intend to present the findings of the evaluation at the district's governing board in February, and that no changes would go into effect before the 2012-13 hunting season, which begins in September.
Logan Neill can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1435.