"Does the thought of seeing a dead duck make you queasy?" Lindsay Bruening asks.
It's not an academic question. Bruening, a 25-year-old law enforcement officer with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, encounters plenty of defunct waterfowl. It's fair to assume she doesn't get queasy: Ducks are beautiful when they're alive, she says, but she's happy to see them in her Crock-Pot too.
Bruening is petite — about five-foot-four and 120 pounds — with a baby face, a long blond braid, and a syrupy Southern accent. Add a bulletproof vest and a Glock 9mm tucked in her belt and you've got a combination that mesmerizes men. They throw up their arms as if they're surrendering when she passes and beg, "Arrest me!"
But out on the edge of the Everglades, guys with guns take Bruening seriously. On December 8, she was patrolling at the outset of duck-hunting season, covering a swampy area off U.S. 27, about three miles north of the border of Broward and Palm Beach counties. This parcel — technically, it's Stormwater Treatment Area Number Two (STA2) — had formerly been closed to hunting. Now, Bruening was seeing the pent-up demand.
Even hardcore Floridians might be surprised at the creatures that are hunted in the southern part of the state — frogs, sure, and fish and ducks, but also deer, doves, and turkey. For some time now, state hunters and fishers have been at odds with environmentalist groups as well as some government agencies. But lately, sportsmen are at least a little happier with the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, at the bureaucratic level as well as in their dealings with someone like Bruening, who seems to grasp their passion and pastime.
The commission has a dual role. Its officers enforce laws, as Bruening does, with the same powers as a sheriff's deputy but with statewide jurisdiction. And the commission makes policy. This month, for example, it had to determine whether manatees should keep their "endangered" status or be downgraded to merely "threatened" (the commission left the placid sea beasts on the "endangered" list) and consider whether to reduce commercial trapping of spiny lobsters (no, at least until 2009). Meanwhile, it was also Fish and Wildlife workers who found hundreds of pounds of pot stashed in a boat at Haulover Marina a few weeks ago. That dicier part of the commission's work was also evident in October, when FWCC officer Michelle Lawless died in a nighttime ATV crash, apparently while she was chasing poachers (the incident is still under FWCC investigation).
Bruening's government-issued Ford F-150 contains a Dell laptop and a wireless transmitter; a printer, for issuing citations; and a CB radio as well as binoculars. A crate of rulebooks and field guides occupies the back seat. She nabbed a red-light runner the other day — "This truck lights up like a Christmas tree when I pull someone over!" she said — and at the same time, she's expected to know the difference between a 12-gauge and a 20-gauge shotgun and how to catch an alligator with her hands.
Bruening was one of 47 recruits and just three women the year she started with the commission, she says, drawn from 700 applicants. Aspiring officers must pass two written tests as well as a grueling test of physical fitness and undergo multiple interviews. As part of that process, Bruening says, the commission even interviewed her friends and neighbors. Part of the reward for those who pass is a base salary of just $32,000 a year, well below even Broward Sheriff's Office deputies, who start at an annual salary of $40,947.
Bruening was at STA2 to keep an eye on the duck hunters, who each had to register for one of 28 spots. They began their day around 4 a.m., clad in camouflage, as they lugged coolers and canoes. They set their decoys and covered themselves in palm fronds and then waited; they're not allowed to shoot until a half-hour before sunrise. And then, when that moment comes, "it's like a fireworks grand finale," Bruening says. She listens to hunters as they try to mimic a mallard's honk and laughs. About 9 a.m., she flags down two hunters who are done for the day, Julian Prieto and Ron Ferguson, both of Miami. She does to them what she will do 20 more times that day: asks to inspect their truck. She checks to see that they have hunting licenses and federal duck stamps. She makes sure their rifles are plugged, allowing only three shells in the chambers. Using a magnet, she ensures that the shot they're using is steel, not lead, which is an environmental toxin. Then she opens their cooler and counts heads. The hunters are allowed to take six ducks each. She pets the dead ducks' feathers admiringly.
Is that blood dripping from a drake's beak?
"No, no," Prieto says, laughing. "He was drinking cherry Kool-Aid!"
Like other hunters here, Prieto and Ferguson plan to eat what they've killed. Prieto is particularly keen on barbecued duck wrapped in bacon and garlic. Duck hunting, he says, is his therapeutic obsession, which he rates as "better than sitting in an office making $150 an hour."
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.