Florida's hunters are hunting for new places to track wild game and their attention has turned to the state's water districts.
United Waterfowlers of Florida has successfully pushed for the St. Johns River Water Management District and the South Florida Water Management District to open up preserve property that was previously off-limits. Now it's pushing for the Southwest Florida Water Management District to do the same.
But the proposal, slated for a public hearing in Plant City on Friday, is drawing fire from a wide range of other groups interested in outdoor recreation ranging from horseback riding to bird-watching.
"We don't want that to go through," said Nancy Kost of the Citrus County Audubon Society. "It's not safe to hunt and bird. They're not compatible."
To Newton Cook, executive director of United Waterfowlers of Florida, that's nonsense.
"We understand these other people's concerns, even though they are irrational," he said. "They've seen the movies, and they've seen the bang-bang-bang. It's not like that. They have this conception that it's going to be this constant barrage, and it's not."
However, Cook said not even his group likes the hunting proposal the agency commonly known as Swiftmud has come up with. It's too conservative, he contended.
Swiftmud already allows hunting at more than a dozen places in its 16-county area, but other water management districts offer more, Cook said. That's in part because his group has in recent years pushed hard to make those agencies open up more of their lands, he said.
"There's always some people who are against hunting on the staff" of the state water agencies, he said. "They think it's dangerous or whatever."
Cook said the Tampa Bay area has been particularly hostile to hunters, noting that among other things "most of the Tampa Bay islands are shut down to hunting." So two years ago, when Polk County closed off a traditional hunting area because of complaints that the guns bothered an eagle, his group started working to open up other hunting areas, he explained.
The Swiftmud staff is evaluating whether to allow hunting in eight new areas owned by the state agency: Chassahowitzka River and Coastal Swamps, Cypress Creek Preserve, Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Preserve, Green Swamp East, Green Swamp West, Lake Panasoffkee, Hálpata Tastanaki Preserve, and Weeki Wachee Preserve. There have been no problems or conflicts at any of the other areas where hunting is allowed, said Swiftmud spokeswoman Robyn Felix, but not every parcel of state property is ideal for every kind of hunting.
Cook said his group's reaction to the proposal is "thank you for what you've offered here but it doesn't go far enough." Meanwhile Audubon and other groups will oppose any of it.
No final decision will be made at the public hearing Friday, Felix said. Instead, she said, the staff will evaluate the response and come up with a proposal in the fall or winter.
"It's going to be a long process," she said.
The hearing was originally supposed to be held at the agency's Tampa office, Felix said, but the staff moved it to accommodate what's expected to be a crowd of hundreds of people.
Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected]