A room at the Weston Hyatt was split down the middle last night between hunters and environmentalists who offered two-minute commentaries on what action the Park Service should take regarding deer hunting in the 146,000-acre Big Cypress Addition Lands.
If you had to ask this Pulp reporter to make a wager, it looks like the deer better find a new place to hide.
Giving the presentation was the URS Corp., "a leading provider of engineering, construction, and technical services for public agencies and private sector companies around the world." Big Cypress Superintendent Pedro Ramos, a federal employee, explained that the agency outsources projects like these "because on our own, we don't have the capacity."
The star of the evening was Ron Bergeron, a
commissioner on the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, who got quite a bit of deference from Ramos. "We're in his neighborhood," Ramos announced, asking the ten-gallon-hatted developer to stand up and be recognized. "I appreciate you tremendously," said Ramos.
Later, Bergeron stepped in during the middle of the public-comment session to offer more than two minutes of commentary before leaving for another meeting.
"Well, howdy, everybody," he said.
"Hello, Ronnie," the hunters said.
Bergeron said that modern Everglades preservation owes its history to "Florida cracker families, Glades men, people of the woods," of which he seems to consider himself an heir apparent, with family in the area for 170 years.
"Personally," he said, "I hunt more with my camera today," but he said he supported hunting, with a management plan and a quota.
Asked later about the apparent deference to Bergeron despite the fact that he came down on one side of the issue, Ramos said it "was out of respect for his position as a commissioner. That's an agency we partner with... That's how we run our meetings."
The enviro side of the room, with perhaps slightly more of a turnout than the hunters, argued that Florida's natural diversity depends on a few remaining parcels of unhunted land and that the off-road vehicles that hunters typically use make it hard for other users like hikers and birdwatchers to enjoy the area. Drew Martin of the Sierra Club, supporting a ban on hunting, said that his was "not an antihunting organization" but that the area should remain as a food resource for the severely endangered Florida Panther.
Two of the hunters who spoke said that "no species has ever gone extinct because of hunting." Lyle McCandless, president of the Big Cypress Sportsmen's Alliance, who wore a trimmed white beard and tucked-in shirt, as did many of the hunters present, said that the no-hunting alternative "should not be offered" because a congressional act in 1974 said that officials "shall permit hunting... within the preserve." He called the prohibition of hunting "illegal."
Matt Schwartz of South Florida Wildlands Association later read the second part of that clause, which said that officials "may designate zones... where no hunting... may be permitted."
The Pulp caught up with McCandless after the meeting, and he said that he was the person who posted a comment, under the name "A native Floridian," to our previous post on the subject. In that comment, he wrote, "There are thousands of deer and hundreds if not thousands of Panthers throughout the state of Florida. The State keeps the true Panther population at the lowest possible level so they can justify their budgets, protective and unneeded rules etc."
Asked about this theory about a government conspiracy to hide the true number of deer and panthers, he maintained that "they do that on a regular basis, in an effort to restrict us... There's very little data available today about animal populations." He also rejected the possibility of the involvement of U.S. Fish and Wildlife, because "frankly, we're not going to have a second federal agency" stand in the way of hunting.
Parks officials are going to compile the comments into a report, though it's unclear how much impact the public-comment session will have on the future of hunting in the preserve.
But the hunters are well-organized right now (at least if their matching shirts and official-sounding club names are to be believed), the powerful local official Ron Bergeron seems to be on their side, and the status quo for the rest of the preserve is to allow hunting. It's going to take a lot of pushback from antihunting advocates if they want to accomplish an outright hunting ban.
Here's the menu of choices for the Addition Lands:
- They can remain without hunting, as they have been since their designation as part of the Big Cypress Preserve in 1988.
- They can allow hunting like the rest of the Big Cypress Preserve.
- They can allow hunting under a plan that can be modified going forward. This one rankles the hunters because it would include the involvement of another federal agency, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. Hunters, as we have seen, think government is bad.
The park service will issue a draft plan early next year. Comments can be submitted online here.