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Swiftmud to open more land to hunters next year, but not as much as they'd like

BROOKSVILLE — In a move that left people on both sides dissatisfied, the Southwest Florida Water Management District voted Tuesday to open two of its preserve properties for hunting but keep two others closed.

Hunters will not be allowed on the Halpata Tastanaki Preserve near Dunnellon or the Chassahowitzka River and Coastal Swamps preserve in Citrus County, the board commonly known as Swiftmud decided. But starting in 2013, for a few weeks a year, bow hunters will be allowed to hunt the Weekiwachee Preserve in Hernando County, while hunters can pursue small game on agency property at Lake Panasoffkee in Sumter County.

"We need to think about the future," board member Doug Tharp said, noting that once a property was opened to hunting it would be too late to fix any mistakes. He called the approval of two out of the four "a good compromise."

Hunters made it clear they disagreed.

"I think antihunting fears permeated this decision," said Phil Walters, a Tampa hunting and fishing guide. "It was based on ignorance."

After the vote, Dennis Dutcher of United Waterfowlers of Florida confronted a Swiftmud staffer outside the boardroom to complain that board members seemed "lost" and that hunters felt their concerns had been dismissed or shunted aside.

Despite what he viewed as a setback, he vowed to keep pushing for more properties to be opened to hunting.

"This is not going to end," Dutcher told the staffer. "We're going to keep doing this."

But Mac Davis, president of the Gulf Coast Conservancy, said he couldn't understand how the board could say yes to even limited hunting at Weekiwachee, home to a dwindling population of Florida black bears.

Walters, Dutcher and Davis were among 40 people who spent more than three hours Tuesday morning giving the board their opinions about whether hunting could co-exist with hiking, biking, horseback riding, fishing and nature photography on state-owned preserves.

In a rare turn, two of the 40 were former land management officials at Swiftmud who had been pushed out during the agency's Tallahassee-imposed budget cuts. Kevin Love, who until a month ago led the land management department, and Mary Barnwell, who for 17 years managed all four of the properties that were up for consideration, both opposed opening any of the land to hunting.

Love said the property had been purchased for environmental preservation and water resource protection, not hunting. Barnwell warned of dire consequences of disrupting the black bears, whooping cranes and scrub jays that live on the various preserves, noting that hunters are more likely than other preserve visitors to stray off trails and into the underbrush where imperiled wildlife hide.

Dutcher mocked Love, saying the former Swiftmud staffer didn't really want anyone on preserve property because "we might step on some flora and fauna."

Swiftmud already allows hunting at more than a dozen places in its 16-county area, but other water management districts offer more, hunting advocates pointed out. Several of them complained to state legislators about what they considered an antihunting bias among Swiftmud staffers, according to board chairman Paul Senft Jr., which is what led the agency to take a new look at its preserves to see if some could be opened to hunting.

The proposed opening of Halpata, Weekiwachee, Lake Panasoffkee and Chassahowitzka preserves drew nearly 1,000 comments online and in a prior public hearing. Some made accusations that the board members clearly didn't like much.

For instance, board member Neil Combee complained repeatedly about what he called "red herring" arguments. He contended that most hunters don't even get a chance to discharge the firearms they carry and therefore are no more disruptive than nature photographers.

"Mostly they're birdwatchers with a gun in their hands," he said.

Ultimately, what the board approved was opening Lake Panasoffkee to seven rounds of three-day hunts of small game — rabbits, raccoons, squirrels, coyotes and opossum — for a total of 21 days out of the year; and at Weekiwachee Preserve, five archery hunts of six days each, for a total of 30 days of hunting out of the year.

Charles Lee of Audubon of Florida said he thought the compromise was a reasonable one, and added, "They did something environmental agencies don't do too often lately: They erred on the side of protecting the environment."

Craig Pittman can be reached at craig@tampabay.com.

Swiftmud to open more land to hunters next year, but not as much as they'd like 02/28/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 28, 2012 11:18pm]
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