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Everglades Hunting Proposal Threatens Florida Panthers; Public Meeting Wednesday in Weston

The National Park Service is poised to implement a plan that would allow hunting in one of the last outposts of untrammeled land in the Everglades: the northeast corner of the Big Cypress National Preserve.

The rest of the preserve is already open to hunting, but this section, called the Big Cypress Addition Lands, has been off-limits to deer hunters since its acquisition by the federal government in a land-swap deal with its owners, the Collier family, in 1988.

The proposal for hunting is controversial not just because of its potential impact on the deer population but because those deer are food to the 100 or so remaining Florida Panthers -- one of the most endangered species in the world.

"There are about 180 deer in the entire area," says Matthew Schwartz of the South Florida Wildlands Association, who is organizing an effort to voice opposition to the hunting plan. "Scientists are very worried, because... it's very likely that panthers are going to be competing with recreational hunters for food."

The Addition Lands number some 146,000 acres on Broward County's western border, bisected by Alligator Alley. Schwartz says that the area south of the highway is a waterlogged cypress swamp and that the northern part is "spectacular: a true mosaic of prairies, marshes, and hardwood hammocks."

It's also an important feeding ground for the tiny extant population of panthers, which has been demolished by human development, shrinking habitat, and hunting in the remainder of the preserve. An area on the western side of Big Cypress is set aside as the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. But, says Schwartz, with diminishing resources and the tendency of the big cats to walk 20 miles a day in search of food, "a panther born in the refuge might well find its way into the addition lands."

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He argues that "this land was purchased by the American people for the purpose of resource protection. It's the property of 3 million Americans, not 650 hunters," a number estimated by the park service.

Current proposals include keeping an outright ban on hunting in the Addition Lands, adopting a management plan similar to the one in use in the rest of the preserve, or implementing a provisional plan to allow hunting, subject to further changes.

Park officials are holding a public-comment session tomorrow night from 5 to 7:30 p.m. at the Hyatt Regency Bonaventure in Weston. Public comment is also being accepted online until September 16. Tomorrow night's meeting will include a review of the proposed options and a time for comments of three minutes per person.

"We expect a significant number of hunters to be there," Schwartz says. "It should be a lively meeting. Hopefully it will be a peaceful one."

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