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Florida’s Battle for Public Land Hunting

Florida’s Battle for Public Land Hunting

A flock of blue-winged teal flies above a marsh

Florida is the “canary in the coal mine” in battle between development versus public land hunting

In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt created the first National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), Pelican Island, off the coast of Florida. Seventy-three years later, the J.N. ‘Ding’ Darling NWR was established in Lee County, named after the father of the federal duck stamp.

Now, there’s a battle among Florida waterfowl hunters and developers, with the Florida Wildlife Conservation (FWC) Commission stuck in the middle. FWC has submitted a proposal to change the rule for establishing Restricted Hunting Areas, leading to pushback from hunters like Travis Thompson, host of the Cast and Blast podcast, and a full-time waterfowl guide.

“In Florida, we don’t have agriculture like they do in the Midwest, so we don’t have the ability to go lease soybean fields or anything like that,” Thompson said. “What we do have is a crap ton of lakes. They’re everywhere. It’s a super traditional waterfowl area, but people began building houses on those [lakes], so now we have a conflict between homeowners and waterfowlers. So, I’ve been hunting this lake for 27 years, and all of a sudden you put a dock there. Just because you put a dock there doesn’t mean the ducks stopped coming but it means I have to stop hunting now.”

Thompson continued: “I’m a North American Conservation Model guy so that lake is public trust no matter what. [Building a dock] doesn’t give you more right over that waterway than anyone else.”

Thompson went on to explain the current process that FWC has in place, the one they’re trying to change, as one where municipalities would request to establish a bird sanctuary—something regularly denied. Then, years ago, a commissioner established rules to create a Critical Wildlife Area to protect imperiled species. Those parcels are incredibly small—not a big effect on hunters—and, according to Thompson, municipalities were unable to establish those, too. Eventually, Belle Isle, a small city near Orlando, sued FWC after many complaints of duck hunters utilizing Lake Conway and Little Lake Conway, according to the Orlando Sentinel. FWC’s lawyer determined that they were going to lose, so the agency issued a Restricted Hunting Area (RHA) after coming to an agreement with the city in June 2018. The agreement stated that hunters were “mostly prohibited from shooting at wildlife” within 200 feet of the shoreline in the city. According to Thompson, this suit was spurred by negligent hunters. Regardless, this set up a system for other municipalities to do the same.

In January 2019, the city of Casselberry filed a similar suit. A densely populated city in Seminole County, Casselberry’s lakes being hunted were less than 50 acres, which, according to city officials in the Orlando Sentinel article, “means ducks are basically in the backyards of all the homes around the lakes, and hunters thereby create noise and public safety concerns.” According to the article, Casselberry was previously determined to be a bird sanctuary city to protect peacocks and other birds from harm, but state wildlife officials told the city that state law prohibits them from banning hunting within city limits. Further, in a letter to the city, FWC Director of the Division of Hunting and Game Management Morgan Richardson noted, “the establishment of a bird sanctuary or restricted hunting area would result in the denial of reasonable and lawful hunting opportunity in undeveloped wetland areas.”

So, naturally, Casselberry followed the Belle Isle suit’s example and FWC settled and gave the city an RHA. As this pattern repeats, and to counter the precedent now established by Belle Isle’s suit, the agency is trying to create basic rules for municipalities to apply for an RHA.

The proposed changes would eliminate the option for municipalities to create bird sanctuaries while establishing language to specify how a jurisdiction can apply to create an RHA. In a webinar presentation, FWC said, “As written, the requirements for establishing an RHA are subjective and open to interpretations that hinge on an evaluation of public safety. This leads to questions and confusion among those communities and jurisdictions interested in applying for an RHA and for people who hunt those areas. In addition, we have experienced increased hunting-related complaints and interest in RHAs in recent years as Florida continues to be developed and homeowners and hunters interact more often. To maintain acceptance of hunting and to address the growing concerns of homeowners and local government officials, we are proposing changes to the rule language to provide clear, objective criteria for establishing a Restricted Hunting Area. This draft rule change also would increase efficiency in evaluating requests for Restricted Hunting Areas.”

The problems Thompson sees arising from this new rule come from the five criteria that municipalities need to meet to establish an RHA.

“The first thing they have to do is have a dwelling density minimum of one house per acre in the municipality,” he said. “The city I live in has 12,000 acres of land [and] 14,000 dwellings. I think Winterhaven has 88 lakes within the city limits. There are some of those lakes that are super developed, but there are three or four of them on the edge of town, and one half of the lake is developed and the other half is not – I’m talking a 300-500 acre lake. For a boat or two to go out there and hunt on that other half should not be an issue.”

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But FWC’s language in their presentation does not state the dwelling density is per municipality. Rather, it says that the proposed restricted hunting area must have an average of one dwelling per acre per state law (F.S. 790.15). Further, it states a resolution must be passed that clearly states the governing body is seeking an RHA and that all residents within the proposed area have been contacted and invited to at least one public meeting to discuss the resolution before its passing. There also must be detailed maps and legal descriptions of the proposed RHA and a list of local law enforcement agencies or an agency that has agreed to enforce the rules governing the RHA.

But Thompson says that isn’t the case.

“They have to have a public meeting with stakeholders in the community where the RHA will occur,” he said. “My problem with that is, this is an abdication of public trust by FWC. They are the holder of the resource for me. Do you hunt in your hometown every time you go hunting? I don’t know anyone who does that. Generally, I’m driving 45 minutes in any direction at the minimum. I may hunt from Tampa to Orlando down to Lake Okeechobee; that’s all fair game to me. I’m not included as a stakeholder in any of those conversations but I should be included as a stakeholder at the state level.”

So why is there a discrepancy? Thompson comes around to explain he believes an entire county—his example being Pinellas County which borders Tampa and hosts St. Petersburg—could apply to become an RHA but only post signs where they don’t want you to hunt. A stipulation in the new rule would be that signs must be posted along the RHA’s border in intervals of no more than 500 feet. Thompson continued to claim he believes the county would only post signs in an area where they don’t want hunters, not the county, something FWC lawyers have allegedly told Thompson wouldn’t hold up in court.

“We can’t set up a model where hunters have to go to court to prove they didn’t do anything wrong,” he said. “That seems like a really silly way to go about this.”

When asked to clarify whether an entire municipality could apply to become an RHA, FWC contact Tammy Sapp noted this was a possibility.

“Yes, if all the criteria are met including the requirement to post signs along the entire RHA border at intervals of no more than 500 feet and that can be seen easily from any point of ingress or egress,” Sapp said. “In addition, RHAs will not include any FWC or federally owned or managed lands; nor will the 300-foot buffer extend onto these areas. Local law enforcement would have sole responsibility for enforcing RHA rules.”

Sapp noted that FWC can’t speculate on future court decisions or outcomes when asked about Thompson’s claim about municipalities not putting up signage around the entire border of the municipality.

Clearly a nuanced issue, there are a few major points to explore such as how confusing game laws hurt the R3 movement and why the FWC creating such a stringent rule is an underestimate of the local populace.

Underestimating the populace and how convoluted game laws hurt hunter recruitment, retention, and reactivation

Aside from RHAs potentially hurting hunter recruitment and retention in the waterfowl community, Thompson believes FWC is underestimating the people that live in Florida now.

“In FWC’s defense, they believe that this rule—they’re trying to make it so hard a municipality won’t want to do it,” he said. “From a Floridian’s perspective who works his ass off for conservation on the daily, they are drastically underestimating the amount of [people] we have here that are members of PETA, Humane Society of the United States, Audubon, whatever, some that are even OK with hunting as long as [you] go to Montana and shoot your elk. They don’t want you to shoot a duck in their lake.”

Thompson points out another problem. He drew a circular lake and put five houses on the northern end of the lake. Noting the population density rule, he says the entire shoreline would be considered an RHA, while the water wouldn’t be if it was truly submerged sovereign land. But the ruling states in an RHA, hunting within 300 feet of a dwelling is prohibited, not from the shoreline or the end of a dock. Further, RHAs will not include any FWC or federally owned/managed lands, nor will the 300-foot buffer extend into those areas. Finally, the proposed changes will still allow hunting in undeveloped areas within an RHA or anywhere that’s more than 300 feet from a dwelling, as well as on private lands with the landowner’s written consent, and only applies to sovereign submerged lands (SSLs).

“Certainly, Florida’s growing population is a factor in availability of places to hunt, hike, horseback ride, and a host of other outdoor activities. Florida has one of the largest wildlife management area systems in the country at nearly 6 million acres,” Sapp said. “FWC is the lead manager or landowner on over 1.46 million acres and works in partnership with other governmental or private landowners on another 4.54 million acres. Also, Florida has many large lakes and rivers that in their entirety would not meet the criteria for establishing an RHA, even if development occurs.”

This then raises the question: what does the state consider an SSL? According to the state Bureau of Public Land Administration, “Sovereign submerged lands include, but are not limited to, tidal lands, islands, sandbars, shallow banks and lands waterward of the ordinary or mean high water line, beneath navigable freshwater or beneath tidally influenced waters.”

And when asked about undeveloped land, which resides in an RHA, and SSL, which does not, Thompson noted, “No one is going to understand that.”

“We talk about R3 and resources and how we’re going to get more people hunting; when we make a thing this confusing, [it’s going to hurt all of that],” he said. “The number one question I get when doing [R3 stuff] is, ‘I’m scared to do this because I’m afraid I’m going to shoot the wrong duck,’ and, ‘I’m scared to do this because I’m worried I don’t know where I can hunt legally.’ If we introduce this rule you’re putting [an end to] duck hunting in the state of Florida.”

Further, to make matters more complicated, although the legal shooting distance is 300 feet from a dwelling and not from the shoreline, if a house is 50 feet from the shore, then hunters cannot hunt within 250 feet of the shore, and so forth.

“If I’m a developer, and I want to build out the rest of the lake and I don’t want hunting on the lake, then I’m going to put my houses 200 feet from the shore,” Thompson said. “Then, I’m eliminating your use of cover within 100 feet of the shoreline, which is where all the cover is. I think this is where people are missing the conversation who support the rule. Today, the effects are going to be very minimal. Five years from now the effects are going to be felt. Ten years from now, the rules are going to be felt heavily and the rule is going to be modified in favor of development.”

It’s no surprise that hunter numbers have been steadily declining over the last four decades, and Florida is no exception to that. Licensed hunters have dropped 25% in the Sunshine State since 1980, falling more than 60,000. This is in addition to Florida being one of the fastest-growing states, as the population has more than doubled since 1980 from 10.19 million to 21.48 million per data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

But, to fix this, Thompson has an idea.

Where to go from here

Some may think someone in Thompson’s position would want to nix the rule entirely, but rather, he wants a caveat added to the rule—one he sees would help hunters immensely.

“Florida is the ‘gun-crazy state,'” Thompson said. “Probably 10 years ago, they created a law, a Florida statute, 790.15. It’s the rule that’s protected us up to this point. It’s called the backyard gun range rule colloquially. It basically says, ‘These are the places you can’t shoot a gun,’ and it has this disclaimer as you go down the statute and it gets weaker and weaker, and gets to a point and it says, ‘If under the circumstances the discharge does not pose a reasonably foreseeable risk to life, safety or property, or to the person who discharges the firearm, you’re fine.'”

This holds up. The statute’s actual language reads, starting in subsection 4, “Any person who recreationally discharges a firearm outdoors, including target shooting, in an area that the person knows or reasonably should know is primarily residential in nature and that has a residential density of one or more dwelling units per acre, commits a misdemeanor of the first degree … This subsection does not apply: (a) To a person lawfully defending life or property or performing official duties requiring the discharge of a firearm; (b) If, under the circumstances, the discharge does not pose a reasonably foreseeable risk to life, safety, or property; or (c) To a person who accidentally discharges a firearm.”

With this, Thompson argues FWC should adopt a rule with a directional component.

“Statewide we want a 300-foot rule from any dwelling unless under the circumstances the discharge doesn’t pose a foreseeable risk to life, safety, or property,” he said. “Easy peasy. You don’t have to file for permits, have crossover between local and state law enforcement who has jurisdiction over what, you don’t have signs, and from a hunter’s perspective I can now teach people, ‘You need to know where your projectile is going.’

“I’d say Lake Tohopekaliga is historically one of the most significant waterfowling lakes in the state. I’d say it’s in the top five. I’d say on a given day during duck season it accommodates 30 hunters on a Saturday and Sunday. Let’s extrapolate that out and say there are 10 weekends you can hunt, that’s 300 opportunities. That’s not even talking Monday-Friday hunters. The 10-year plan for Lake Tohopekaliga calls for every inch of shoreline to be built out. At some point we’re going to have to reach a tipping point as a state where we’re either going to say, yes you can keep building houses here but you’re going to have to be OK with people hunting in front of them, or we’re going to have to do away with hunting. There’s going to have to be a solution where we coexist or one wins.”

And what did Sapp say about the proposed rule?

“F.S. 790 addresses firearms and discharge, while the proposed changes to Commission rules only apply to the take of game with a firearm. Commission rules would complement F.S. 790 to promote safety and provide clear expectations for hunters and homeowners,” Sapp said. “We always actively seek input on proposed draft rule changes and will continue to do so. Stakeholders are invited to view the proposed rule changes and provide their feedback. Draft rule amendments regarding RHAs will be considered at the FWC’s February 2021 Commission meeting.”

If Thompson could leave folks with one last thing, however, it is this:

“I feel we are marginalizing hunting in this state, and hunters are stewards of [conservation] and they’re the type of people you want on the landscape,” he said. “My worry is that the most endangered species in a state of panthers and manatees are hunters. That’s a sad thought to me. Things like this, within that context, they’re hard for me to get past because I don’t see a way back.”

“I took a girl to my junior prom and she reconnected with her ex-boyfriend there. That sucked. She used me for the ride, the ticket and that was it. That’s what it feels like as a hunter in Florida. On the daily, I get degraded. I get hammered in wildlife refuges that my duck stamp dollars purchased and told I shouldn’t go in there. I’m like, I’m the one that drove you guys to the dance. Not just me, but my dad, grandfather, and great-grandfather drove you to the dance and you’re saying, ‘Nah, I don’t want to hang out with you anymore.’ That’s a sucky feeling when there’s such disregard for this thing I hold dear, whether it’s hunting or the North American Conservation Model. When you start pulling pieces out of that, it falls apart.”

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