The Hunted

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

Ditto for Brown's Farm Wildlife Management Area, where signs announce the permanent closure to hunting "effective at dusk on Sunday, Nov. 30, 1997." The land will now become a filtration marsh for polluted water, part of the ongoing Everglades Restoration Project. Hunters fear the mammoth federal and state effort will also gobble up the Holey Land and Rotenberger preserves, marking the effective end of hunting in Broward and southern Palm Beach counties. Officials say these fears are groundless.

Despite the shrinking number of places to hunt, hunting in South Florida endures, in spite of -- or because of -- another fact. The historic Everglades, that region south of Lake Okeechobee not devoured by sugar cane cultivation or walled off by urban sprawl, may rank among the hardest places in the world to hunt.

If you spent one full day in the Everglades hunting white-tailed deer and wild hogs, your chances of killing something would be less than 3 percent. By comparison a hunter in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan has a better than 50 percent chance of success for deer; in California, 19 percent. Game in the Everglades is not only relatively scarce but unusually shy. Meanwhile it would be hard to design a natural environment more inaccessible to man or less conducive to sneaking up on or tracking anything, a fact the U.S. infantry discovered in its forgotten nineteenth-century dress rehearsal for Vietnam known as the Seminole Wars. But more on this later.

The landscape isn't the only impediment to success for the South Florida hunter. Before you can hunt, you must purchase (cash only) a state hunting license ($12.50), plus a wildlife management area permit for hunting on public lands ($26.50). If you plan to stalk the elusive wild turkey, yet another permit is required ($5). You may also want a state waterfowl permit ($3) and migratory bird permit (free), but both are virtually worthless unless accompanied by a federal duck stamp ($15). For the obsessive personality, there's the Lifetime Sportsman's License ($1050).

The cash outlay for licenses is a minor obstacle, though. Once in the woods, the South Florida hunter faces an avalanche of regulations, some of them confusing and obscure. You can shoot a gun from an airboat, but the boat has to be stopped. But you can't even transport archery equipment in an airboat. Chasing foxes with dogs is okay as long as you don't kill the fox. You can't chase hogs or deer with dogs, but if you wound one, you can use a dog to track it down and kill it.

Each state wildlife area has different seasons, different bag limits, and confusing borders. Most do not appear on standard road maps, and all are off the beaten track. In the case of Big Cypress National Preserve, which spans portions of Miami-Dade, Collier, and Broward counties, a long-standing feud between the feds who own it and the state officials who manage its game has made permissible hunting behavior doubly confusing to comprehend.

One professional hunting guide tells how he spent weeks scouting the woods and trails around his house on the western verge of Big Cypress last year. He flew over the country twice. The day after hunting season opened, he found himself near a dirt road north of I-75 raising his rifle to shoot a deer. Suddenly a man with binoculars emerged from the underbrush and started blowing on a whistle. The deer took off.

Confrontations with antihunting activists are actually rare in the Everglades, just like accidental hunting fatalities. But tales of protesters beating on pots and pans to scare off game, or the mystery man in a white van who went around slashing swamp-buggy tires, take on important symbolic value for hunters. Somewhere along the line, hunting became marginalized, and hunters became cultural villains instead of neighborhood heroes. Perhaps the shift occurred when dolphin started showing up on South Florida menus under the politically correct name mahi-mahi. Or perhaps it occurred when America, which was primarily rural at the time of its founding, finally became overwhelmingly urban.

When Dick Houghton first set foot in the Big Cypress, he was thirteen years old, and nearly one-third of American men hunted. Today, at age 65, Houghton and his fellow blood sportsmen represent only 7 percent of the adult population. There are half a million fewer U.S. hunters now than there were a decade ago.

Like most South Florida hunters, Houghton hates the National Park Service and most environmentalists. Flying across the Glades in his airboat, he looks the part of the high-tech redneck: camo fatigues, cell phone, loaded pistol, and a generous carnivore's paunch. The strange thing is how Houghton sounds more and more like a tree hugger the longer he talks.

He and his hunting confreres did as much as anyone to block oil drilling in the Big Cypress in the mid-Seventies. (The effort failed, and today Exxon maintains a sizable complex of wells and processing stations deep inside the preserve.) More recently he fought the Park Service to retain his position as one of the last 225 exempt property owners inside the vast wilderness.

Arriving at his camp -- a neat one-story bunkhouse that he built in 1960, complete with running water, TV, and solar-powered ceiling fans -- Houghton switches from airboat to homemade swamp-buggy for a tour of his domain. The rutted trails created by swamp buggies have long been a target of environmentalist concern. But beyond aesthetic or cosmetic blight, Houghton contends the roads do no harm. Far more damaging, he points out, is the broad, three-and-a-half-mile-long pipeline right-of-way built by Exxon and known to hunters as "I-95." The oil company also maintains at least fifteen miles of hard-packed access roads that pass near his camp.

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