Deer hunters will have new rules to follow in part of the Big Cypress National Preserve this fall as scientists puzzle over a dramatic decline in the deer population.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, meeting in St. Augustine, approved the new rules Wednesday.
They would be in effect for the 2011-2012 deer hunting season, which starts in September, in part of the preserve known as the Stairsteps Unit, named for its jagged shared boundary with Everglades National Park south of U.S. 41 East in eastern Collier County.
Worried hunters have reported seeing fewer deer in that part of the preserve, a stretch of wet prairies dotted with tree islands, and have called on the Conservation Commission to take action.
Studies have blamed higher water levels since 1995, making deer easier prey for increasing populations of predators.
“The coyotes, panthers and bobcats just gobble them up,” Big Cypress Sportsmen’s Alliance President Lyle McCandless said.
Zones 3 and 4 of the Stairsteps Unit, the southernmost and wettest parts of the unit, were closed to deer hunting last season because of the deer decline.
The new rules would keep deer hunting season closed in Zone 4 but would reopen deer hunting in Zone 3.
The new rules would reduce from two to one the number of deer that could be taken from Zone 3 and require that deer taken from Zone 3 have a forked antler, a measure meant to protect young bucks.
Lifelong Big Cypress hunter Franklin Adams said most hunters won’t have a problem with the new rules.
“They’ll just be glad to get on opportunity to get out there and hunt,” said Adams, southern regional director of the Florida Wildlife Federation.
National Park Service aerial summer surveys in Zone 4 counted 393 deer in 2001. The number has fallen each year since then. They counted seven deer in 2010.
Conservation Commission surveys that began last year as part of the search for answers found seven deer per flight in 2010 but just three deer per flight in 2011.
Commission member Richard Corbett questioned whether the higher water levels were a result of wetter weather or water management decisions.
“I’ll put it this way,” the Conservation Commission’s deer management coordinator Corey Morea said. “Rainfall hasn’t increased.”
In other votes Wednesday, the Conservation Commission:
n added about four hours of daylight hunting for the recreational alligator hunting season, which runs Aug. 15 to Nov. 1. The new rules will allow alligator hunting from 5 p.m. to 10 a.m.
n reduced monitoring requirements for landowners who receive gopher tortoises relocated from development sites.
Public projects, like roads or schools, would be able to relocate gopher tortoises on-site if they are next to public conservation lands.
Connect with Eric Staats at www.naplesnews.com/staff/eric_staats