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Swiftmud loses trust in debate over expanded hunting

Just 15 months ago, I wrote this stunningly naive sentence about the Southwest Florida Water Management District:

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

In my defense, that was a different Swiftmud, one that had built a solid record of preserving and restoring wildlife habitat, one that hadn't yet jettisoned two stalwarts in this effort, Mary Barnwell and Kevin Love.

It wasn't a district that, at a time of rock-bottom real estate prices, formally postponed its land-buying program and instead started looking for parcels to unload.

It wasn't under the authority of the current Legislature, which is demonstrating its wise stewardship of the state's ecosystems by considering a bill that would allow giraffes and wildebeests to graze in Paynes Prairie — and in a state devastated by unforeseen damage from all sorts of exotic plants and animals.

Benefit of the doubt? To this bunch? Not unless a whole lot changes.

That lack of trust is one reason I'm opposed to the specific plan to allow hunting on four Swiftmud properties — including the Weekiwachee Preserve — that the governing board will consider on Feb. 28.

There are other reasons, which I'll get to, but it's not because hunting itself is a problem. Not at all. When done right — as in the case of the hog hunt I witnessed last week — it can be a useful management tool and a perfectly valid way for its fans to enjoy nature.

Hunters Dan Barrie, 60, and his son, Bryan, 37, both of Hudson, allowed me to join them Tuesday morning at Swiftmud's Conner Preserve in central Pasco County.

Cages in the rear of their pickups held 10 dogs, but, sticking to the rules of the hunt, the Barries released only three at a time. I didn't see them raging about, slaughtering endangered amphibians and birds, one objection I've heard to introducing dogs into wild areas.

They were too busy sniffing for hogs, unsuccessfully, naturally, until the moment I left the woods, which is exactly when they tracked down their first boar.

The Barries killed a total of four hogs in the three days of this annual hunt. The 10 other parties, with a maximum of three hunters each, killed a total of 21 hogs, a species that churn up land like Rototillers and reproduce like rabbits. They need killing.

That may not be the case with, for example, deer and turkey. But, along with other species, these are clearly plentiful enough to support hunts. And I'm not as bothered as some of my fellow hikers by sharing the woods with hunters, as long as the hunts are well planned and supervised.

That's why last week's hog hunt should be the standard for any expanded hunting on Swiftmud land. The district had conducted a study of Conner's 3,000 acres to make sure the hunt was justified. At a gate on State Road 52, district employees checked to ensure only hunters with permits entered, and to make sure they exited only with hogs, not poached animals.

Interestingly, Swiftmud staffers also conducted a study last June into the proposed expansion of hunting to more properties. The problem is that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, which will run the hunts, disagreed with much of what was in this report.

And during the subsequent negotiations, the district generally caved.

In Marion County's Halpata Tastanaki Preserve, for example, Love and other land managers asked that an area supporting a vital population of the federally endangered Florida scrub jay be off-limits for hunts.

A commission biologist fired back a letter stating that she didn't see why the area couldn't be hunted, and before long Swiftmud's recommendation called for nearly the precise schedule of hunts — gun and bow, turkey and deer — that she requested. By the way, there won't be any check stations at Halpata, she wrote, because the wildlife commission can't afford them.

Swiftmud originally asked for no hunts at all in the Weekiwachee because the best hunting territory is also the best territory for the "critically imperiled" coastal black bear population.

The bears are so skittish that not even mountain bikers are allowed in the northern part of the preserve.

But under the current proposal, bow hunters will be, for a total of 30 days a year, as long as they walk in and carry out the allowed game, which, I should be clear, doesn't include bear.

If there are biological justifications for the expansion of hunts, they aren't in Swiftmud's plans, which are little more than maps showing new hunting grounds.

Strategies to make sure game is plentiful enough, to protect vulnerable species and to monitor the hunts will be worked out after the agreement is signed.

In other words, we'll have to give Swiftmud and the wildlife commission the benefit of the doubt.

Yeah, right.

Swiftmud loses trust in debate over expanded hunting 02/11/12 [Last modified: Saturday, February 11, 2012 12:04pm]

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