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Hunting deserves a place in our recreational landscape

I guess I'm expected to hate the idea of hunting.

I hike, bike and, despite a near total lack of expertise, occasionally go birding. To the people who manage public lands, that makes me a member of three different "user groups.'' Not only is there a certain amount of hostility among such groups, but the people interested in these forms of "passive recreation" are presumed to be extremely hostile to nonpassive ones. And it's hard to think of a less passive use than hunting.

Also, I'm a staffer of this left-leaning newspaper, which automatically makes me suspect, according to an e-mail from Dennis D. Dutcher, the regional director of United Waterfowlers of Florida.

"I'm not a regular reader of your newspaper, and have never seen anything positive about hunting in the St. Pete Times when I had peeled back the pages," Dutcher wrote.

His group is one of several pushing for access to thousands of acres owned by the Southwest Florida Water Management District. Some other users, including birders far more expert than I am, object to the idea.

Even if the district's governing board isn't likely to make a decision on this for at least several months, we are now at the height of deer hunting season, which runs though Dec. 5 in the Croom Tract of the Withlacoochee State Forest.

So, it seems like a good time to take a clear-headed look at the issue.

If Dutcher did read this paper routinely, he would have seen plenty of favorable stories about his sport. That's because there aren't many credible environmental arguments against hunting the most common game species.

Feral pigs damage wild lands throughout the state. The exploding population of deer has made them a pest species in much of the country and very plentiful in Florida.

Decades ago, wild turkeys had been all but wiped out in large parts of the state, said Jason Burton, a biologist with the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, but "there are now sustainable, huntable populations in nearly every county."

Because many local lakes are in decline, so are duck populations. And in 2007, a National Audubon Society study identified greater scaup and Northern pintail as two of the dozens of North American bird species that had shown steep declines in the previous 50 years.

But the bigger picture is more hopeful. The populations of most waterfowl varieties are above the long-term average, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. And Greg Butcher, the author of the Audubon study, said some credit should go to members of groups such as Ducks Unlimited, whose long-term mission — setting aside more wetlands, for more ducks, so they can shoot 'em — appears to be paying off.

I sympathize with one of the birders' objections to expanded hunting. Seeing people entering the woods wearing camos and carrying high-powered rifles doesn't put you in the mood for peaceful nature appreciation.

But when hunters shoot people, it's usually other hunters, a la Dick Cheney. Annually, about three to five of these shootings in Florida are fatal, said hunting advocate Chuck Echenique.

But there is no documentation of a hunter accidentally shooting and killing a non-hunter in the state, he said.

As difficult as this was for me to believe, Burton said that as far as he knows, it's true. In any case, walking in the woods during hunting season is safer than most people think. And except for certain specialty hunts — none of which are envisioned for Swiftmud land — there's no reason hunting should keep people from hiking, biking or canoeing.

Of the 370,000 acres of Swiftmud property, 168,000 acres are closed to all kinds of hunting.

It's not as though the district is going to swing open the gates to all this land. Some parcels are too close to heavily populated areas. Some just don't have much wildlife. Others would need the approval of agencies that help manage them. The 19,500-acre Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park, for example, is partly run by Pasco County.

If another of Swiftmud's landmark properties, the Weekiwachee Preserve, is opened to hunting, guns would be forbidden near its populated borders.

Let's give the district the benefit of the doubt and assume that, where environment conditions and other circumstances require it, the agency will restrict hunting.

Then there will be a few thousand more acres open to people who are interested in learning about nature and destroying only small, highly regulated bits of it. If hogs are the prey, it will probably do the land some good. And if kids come along on hunts, they won't be on the couch or in front of a computer.

At the risk of disappointing my fellow birders, hikers and liberal co-workers, I don't have a problem with it.

Hunting deserves a place in our recreational landscape 11/20/10 [Last modified: Saturday, November 20, 2010 11:49am]

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