By Francisco Alvarado
By Trevor Bach
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
These hunters must know their ducks. First, they have to distinguish them from other kinds of birds; in flight, a duck gives itself away by flapping constantly, never gliding. Then they must differentiate ducks; if they take more than one mottled duck, one black duck, and four mallards, for example, they're breaking the law. So they study flock patterns and consult the Peterson's hunting guides and websites such as whatbird.com. And they must be prudent; if they shoot one too many ducks, even accidentally, and leave it to die, they could be found guilty of "wanton and willful waste." Hunters here still talk about five men who shot 88 ducks just south of Clewiston last season. In August, a federal judge ordered them to pay $24,000 and, worse, to not hunt for more than three years.
Bruening pulls over to check on two more men. She sifts through their ducks, which are stuffed in two Publix grocery bags. She notices a bag moving. It's a wing twitching. "Do me a favor; do him in," she tells one of the hunters, then turns her back.
The hunter swings the duck by its neck, its body spinning like a fan blade.
"This is the worst thing I have to see," Bruening says.
Anyone who's anyone in local hunting circles seems to be out here today — guys from United Waterfowlers of Florida, members of the National Wild Turkey Federation, reps from the Airboat Association of Florida. Byron Maharrey, president of the Everglades Coordinating Council, has come in a truck bearing a bumper sticker that reads "WMDs: The Water Management District Is a Weapon of Mass Destruction." Maharrey, who is dressed in camouflage and carrying a man purse, complains that the Water Management District won't let sportsmen fish on land it controls. "They say, 'There's an eagle out there!' 'It's unsafe because you can't do a three-point turn on the levee!' They've given us so much B.S. They lie through their teeth." And now, he says, the Division of Forestry wants to cut out ATV use in national parks, and the Park Service wants to close roads and trails on thousands of acres in Big Cypress Preserve. Don't even get him started on the Sierra Club. Florida panthers may not be ubiquitous, he says, "but there's a lot more than those bunny-hunters would like you to believe." The Fish and Wildlife Commission, he says, "is the only agency that's friends of ours." They suppress poaching by doing thorough checks, he says, such as Bruening's this morning.
Bruening is on her way to another inspection when she suddenly sees something and stops her truck. She jumps out and picks up a yellow rat snake. "It's so beautiful!" she says. She grips its head with one hand as she fumbles for her camera. The four-foot-long creature coils around her forearm, dives down into her shirt, and pops its head out between two buttons. This makes Bruening laugh.
Bruening checks some fishing licenses and conducts some boat safety inspections. Then she swings by a man-made lake in a residential community near the new Ikea store in Sunrise to see if anyone is illegally fishing.
What if someone were but threw the fish back as she approached?
"That's worse!" she says. "Destroying evidence."
She wants to make more cases. She's just waiting for that glorious day when she'll be allowed to come out here undercover, she says, posing as a hunter.
Back at STA2, about ten duck hunters surround a guy who has bagged an unusual white-faced whistling duck.
Normally, you'd get to see a duck like that only in a zoo, one hunter says admiringly.
Another hunter, Joe Richter Sr., thanks Bruening for being out here with them. "It's making a difference," he says.