"There are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot." - Aldo Leopold

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Case of a County-Run Hunting Program

I attended Duette Park's mandatory hunting orientation last Saturday morning. Manatee County runs the show and, to my knowledge, Duette is the only tract of public land in Florida where the county designs the hunting program, within the guidelines of state law. Over 21,000 acres, the land is home to the headwaters of the Manatee River which favors healthy populations of deer, hogs, turkey and other game animals. Duette shows scars of human use from a couple generations ago and is still surrounded by agriculture and phosphate ventures. Today, it's managed with a plan to restore it to its native, natural condition - with shell roads, power boxes and fences, of course.

Part of their management plan includes this unique hunting program to keep the deer and hog herds in check. Several weekend hunts are sold through a random-draw system. The added income helps fund conservation projects such as longleaf pine restoration, and land management tools like prescribed burns. These hunts have been held every year for nearly 20 years and enjoy a loyal following. In a section of the state where public land is limited, it's valuable real estate.

And it's a lot to ask for in these days of shrinking local government budgets. These hunts aren't overflowing the coffers considering labor costs, machinery, etc. A few seasons ago the hunt program was very much in doubt as the entire state buckled under the recession. So take a tough economic climate and add the wishes of sportsmen, and the challenge for the county comes down to satisfying paying customers while keeping management plans in check with the limited resources available.

I remember the first orientation I attended. The park biologists and managers stood in front of the drawn hunters and read through the rules. Then they were verbally accosted for all manner of  supposed transgressions. Quite a few in the mob – many of whom couldn't even spell "diploma" – queried the biologists on their qualifications to enact management policy. It was known that a lot of the staff were non-hunters, though they worked closely with FWC to draw up management goals from season to season. It was as close to a public flogging as I'd ever seen, and honestly made me worried sharing the woods with these folks.
Duette Park 8-pt

I left that year thinking, "Why do they put up with this? No way can this last." 

But, to their credit, the show’s gone on. 

Since then these annual meetings have been pretty tame, and I'm recognizing the same outdoorsmen from year to year; the majority of the loudmouth malcontents have since packed sand. This year, though, I thought would attract scorn. One, there were no hunts in November, the prime rut period in this section of the state. Two, it didn't appear there'd be any doe tags this season. Three, they raised the antler restriction to 3-points on one side, up from 2.

I figured the antler rule would rile up the most derision. It was front and center in the debate 6 years back. Then, they proposed a modest increase from spike to forkie to improve the age structure and trophy potential, and Holy Jesus, you’d thought they’d been restricted to shooting fictional creatures.

It passed without a peep this year. People will surprise you. It was explained that, yes, they’d still like to improve the age structure. Not a murmur dripped from the crowd. But that’s not the most shocking point to this lack of aggression. See, it's not a free-for-all deer slaying; they work on a quota system. Usually the number of bucks that can be taken on a weekend is 4 – 6. If that is met or exceeded on Saturday, bucks are off-limits on Sunday, allowing only the harvest of pigs or does – if one possesses an antlerless tag (be there in a second). For a 100 hunters paying $80-$90 a hunt sharing a bag of 6 bucks, it's tough to swallow expectations of a whole weekend and only getting a day for that Big Buck. And Big Bucks are tough to do in a day.

Again, not an eyebrow raised, and I believe the rangers relaxed enough to uncross their legs.

As for the doe situation, the guy running the orientation this year, now confident in the calm, claimed he’d prefer no doe tags for the next five years. Nighttime surveys convinced them they’d been a little too liberal doling out these special permits in the past. Bowhunters were welcome to pop a flathead, but the rifle crowds were out.

A striking silence with hunting opportunity shrinking by the paragraph.

The final issue was a lack of hunting weekends during the rut in November, save for one Youth Hunt – youth recruitment was also a big topic this year, happily. One guy stepped forward to challenge this decision, maybe having concluded we were getting chumped out of the best time to hunt. The Man in Charge flatly told him they didn’t have the staff. The limited crew was spread out between here and several other parks throughout the county. With the holidays and influx of Snowbirds flocking south, they just didn’t have the manpower or budget to accommodate November hunts. The gentleman ghosted back into the corn.

All in all, I was impressed with the crowd. Though the added money is critical, hunting is not a priority on this property and this group seemed to understand. Or maybe it was hot and they were lazy, who knows? The County certainly doesn’t need the hassle but has put together about as fine of a quality deer hunting program as you could expect, given the variables. 

The major attribute I see in this success is the communication. The park employees ask hunters to volunteer input on season dates, recommendations for the park, and ways to improve the program. And they appear to be listened to, in some form. A few years back it was suggested to open up the park in the summer for hog and predator hunts. The hogs are rampant here and need serious thinning, a point on which the biologists and hunters always agree. This year they obliged, and it was a superb hunt. As an added bonus, the proceeds of the weekend went to the United Way.

One last remarkable part of this program that other state agencies would do well to notice – the place gets quite a bit of traffic from equestrians, hikers, birdwatchers, butterfly gazers, etc., and there appears to be little conflict, though the park is closed to outsiders during hunt weekends. Beyond the game animals, Duette is also home to endangered scrub jays and indigo snakes and other special species such as gopher tortoises all living in delicate ecological environs. If in nearly twenty years the sanctity of the park’s mission to protect and restore this vestige of native Florida landscape was threatened or conflicts arose with other user groups, I think us hunters would be shown the door in hurry.

Thankfully that’s not happened. It’s a rare piece of property in this state and a fine example of not only assimilating hunters and sound land management practices, but also allowing various populations of outdoor enthusiasts to enjoy the land. We need it in Florida. 

Think folks understand that, too.

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