The Hunted

Tracking animals in the Everglades is a tiring, maddening business. Which is just how a decreasing number of hunters like it.

The limo driver straightened his tux and scratched his head. To the east the giant glow of the Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Palm Beach urban corridor was clearly visible, a comforting sign of modernity. But brighter still and directly overhead lay Orion, the hunter's constellation. The air was unseasonably cold, there was blood on the ground, and the limousine was parked in the middle of the Everglades a long way from anywhere a limo should normally be.

One by one, eight hunters, including Kenny Cypress, son of the chairman of the Miccosukee Indian tribe, emerged from the limousine and stooped to look at a dead three-point buck, the latest kill at the Forty Mile Bend hunter check station -- ground zero for the 1997 hunting season in South Florida. Some of the hunters wore camouflage fatigues and sidearms. Some carried cans of Budweiser.

"You know things are all right in America when a bunch of drunk rednecks and Indians can ride around in a limousine together and talk about deer killin'!" exclaimed Dave Balman, president of a statewide airboat association.

On their way to a Christmas party, the Indians had stopped by the check station to show off the limo. A chat turned into a joy ride, and the joy ride became a scouting party down the nearby Loop Road, a favorite hunting corridor for whites and Native Americans alike. Meanwhile three men in an airboat showed up with the deer.

Bear, a visiting Cherokee, piled a few more two-by-fours on a nearby fire. After helping to remove the deer's jawbone with a medieval-looking instrument (for later analysis of the animal's age and diet), Balman went in search of a bowl of chili and launched into a yarn about a big-game addict he knows who bagged a world-record-size polar bear in Siberia, one of the newest stomping grounds for serious trophy hunters.

Hunting and fishing have been part of the human repertoire for eons, and limousine or no, hunting season has always been a chance to slip out of town for a frolic. But this year the partying has been subdued. Around the fire at dozens of Everglades hunting camps, the talk shifts early in the evening from tracking, stalking, and which shotgun load or rifle scope to use, to a whole new set of social and political concerns, all of them centered on the Mephistophelean meddling of wacko tree huggers, greedhead developers, and government geeks who are making South Florida hunters the newest endangered species.

It seems, for example, that Balman's polar bear yarn is just that: a fireside hunting tale for a chilly night. But the account segues neatly into another one -- how, in the Sixties, Balman stumbled across the vertebrae of a woolly mammoth not far from where he now sits stoking the fire. The bones bore unmistakable marks of human hacking, later confirmed by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. And here the political subtext leaps to center stage -- what Balman was leading up to all along when he started up with the polar bear.

"The point is -- what I wish these antihunting assholes would figure out -- is that man does not live by veggies alone," Balman snorts. "Hunters have been a part of the Everglades for thousands of years. They were chopping steaks off that woolly mammoth. And they were doing it right here a long, long time ago."

The limo pulls away, bearing Kenny Cypress and friends toward their Christmas party in faraway Fort Lauderdale. If it weren't for this holiday hootenanny, Cypress might be out fire-hunting, the local term for jacklighting -- hunting at night with a spotlight. Because the practice is illegal for non-Indians, the hunters who stay behind settle back to wait for dawn and watch Orion move across the sky.

Many Gold Coast urbanites are shocked to learn that hunting still goes on in the Everglades, but in fact it goes on with something of a vengeance. Last year between November 15 and January 1 hunters spent more than 15,000 "man-days" inside the 566,000-acre Big Cypress National Preserve, emerging with 271 slain deer and 174 wild hogs. At the other geographic pole of southeastern Florida, in the 60,000-acre J.W. Corbitt State Wildlife Management Area in northern Palm Beach County, hunters this season have so far reported 83 deer and 173 feral hogs, the largest weighing in at 110 and 195 pounds, respectively.

Between these two huntable public tracts lie a scattering of blood-sport destinations little known to nonhunters: Terrytown, a 3000-acre small-game and bird preserve; Holey Land and Rotenberger wildlife management areas, contiguous chunks of land that lie just north of the Broward border and comprise more than 63,000 acres; Brown's Farm, a small but until recently top-choice deer-hunting spot down a dirt road from Belle Glade in far western Palm Beach County; and the Dupuis Wildlife and Environmental Area near Lake Okeechobee, home to a highly regulated spring wild-turkey hunt, as well as general hunting for deer, hog, bobcat, rabbit, squirrel and -- though only a madman would eat one -- armadillo.

The largest hunting ground happens to be the least used -- a soggy object lesson in the accelerating disappearance of huntable land in South Florida. The Everglades Wildlife Management Area sprawls across 672,000 acres of Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties. Last month, for the first time in six years, state wildlife officials allowed a brief and limited deer and pig hunt. The results were enjoyable for the few hunters selected by lottery to participate. By any other terms they were laughable; the harvest totaled four deer and no feral pigs. The South Florida Water Management District has flooded the land to record levels, and placards have sprung up around the perimeter: "All hunts canceled except migratory game birds."

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