Sportsmen plead with FWC to open hunting in portion of Big Cypress currently off limits

Big Cypress Sportsmen's Alliance President Lyle McCandless, center, speaks about his group's support of traditional recreation uses of the Big Cypress National Preserve at a meeting of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2011, at the Naples Grande Beach Resort in Naples. The sportsmen attended the meeting to show their opposition to the National Park Service's proposed revamping of the hunt management plan. David Albers/Staff

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Big Cypress Sportsmen's Alliance President Lyle McCandless, center, speaks about his group's support of traditional recreation uses of the Big Cypress National Preserve at a meeting of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2011, at the Naples Grande Beach Resort in Naples. The sportsmen attended the meeting to show their opposition to the National Park Service's proposed revamping of the hunt management plan. David Albers/Staff

Big Cypress National Preserve

33100 U.S. 41 E, Ochopee, FL

A stream of sportsmen’s advocacy groups pleaded with the state’s top wildlife authority in Naples Wednesday, urging the agency to open a 147,000-acre portion of the Big Cypress National Preserve to hunting and off-road vehicles.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission heard impassioned calls for a decision they say is long overdue. The acreage, called the Addition Lands, has been closed to all but hiking and some camping since it was annexed in 1988 — restrictions that outdoor enthusiasts say defy the intent of lawmakers who established the preserve.

Last week, one hunting group promised a “show of force” at Wednesday’s meeting at Naples Grande resort, but the tone of the speakers who addressed the commission was more pleading than confrontational.

“I grew up here. My father grew up here,” said resident Jennifer Long, one of the few speakers not representing an advocacy group.

“This land that they’re talking about, I saw it go away,” she said. “My kids have never seen it. It’s terrible, and it shouldn’t be happening.”

Others feared they may not live to hunt on the Addition Lands.

But FWC commissioners and Pedro Ramos, the superintendant of the preserve, renewed promises to overcome the only obstacle — a hunting management plan — that is keeping hunters off the public land.

Some environmentalists also turned out in support of traditional uses of the land, including hunting, in the Addition Lands as long as it is regulated properly to protect endangered wildlife. Others, who did not speak Wednesday, have opposed any hunting in the Addition Lands.

In August, the National Park Service set off public debate with three proposals for how to establish hunting regulations. One would keep rules the way they are, applying the hunting plan on the rest of the preserve to the Addition Lands. A second would ban hunting on the Addition lands.

The third calls for two federal agencies, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service, and the Conservation Commission to review hunting regulations annually.

Many groups Wednesday said they support the third option but urged the Conservation Commission to drop the Fish and Wildlife Service from the proposal, saying a second federal agency could complicate the process.

However, Laurie Macdonald, of the environmentalist group Defenders of Wildlife, said the Fish and Wildlife Service would add expertise on protecting animals.

“Our decisions about hunting are based on what’s sustainable to the species,” she said after the meeting.

Ramos said he hopes to have a plan decided by April 2012 and implemented by the beginning of 2013 at the latest.

Connect with Ben Wolford at www.naplesnews.com/staff/ben-wolford.

© 2011 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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