Big Cypress National Preserve Extends Deadline For Your Comments On Hunting Plan
The public has an additional two weeks to comment on a management plan guiding hunting in Big Cypress National Preserve, a rugged 729,000-acre swath of south Florida that is home to perhaps the most endangered mammal in North America.
While the public comment phase was to end last week, Preserve officials extended it until April 21.
Although the Preserve's enabling legislation allows for hunting, the level of hunting being proposed by Big Cypress officials is drawing criticism. Three options are being considered for hunting in the Preserve:
* Manage hunting across the Preserve as governed by a Cooperative Management Plan the Park Service signed with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in the fall of 2010;
* Ban hunting in the Addition Lands, but allow it elsewhere in the Preserve;
* Rely on an "adaptive management plan" that would allow hunting across the Preserve and which would be reviewed annually by the Park Service, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for changes in hunting regulations as needed.
Matt Schwartz, executive director of the South Florida Wildlands Association, said the Park Service's favored alternative -- Alternative 3, to allow hunting across the preserve, including within the 147,000-acre Addition lands in the preserve's northeastern corner -- jeopardizes threatened and endangered species, will lead to user conflicts, and caters to a very small minority of Big Cypress's visitors.
“First and foremost, this is considered one of the most important pieces of land for the Florida panther in the whole state of Florida, and the Florida panther doesn’t have much land left," Mr. Schwartz told the Traveler late last week. “The Preserve should disallow hunting in the Addition lands for a number of reasons.”
The Addition Lands have been closed to both ORV use and ORV-assisted hunting ever since they came to the preserve in 1996 while officials worked on developing a management plan for the area. Of the thousands of species of flora and fauna found in the Addition Lands, nearly 100 plants are listed by the State of Florida as endangered or threatened while 29 animal species have federally protected status.
Along with the Florida panther, an endangered species, other species with U.S. Endangered Species Act protection include the Cape Sable seaside sparrow, wood stork, red-cockaded woodpecker, Everglades snail kite, eastern indigo snake and the American crocodile.
According to the environmental assessment, "(A) total of 31 animal species that could occur in the Preserve receive some level of special protection or are recognized as rare species by the state of Florida or the federal government. Nine of these 31 species are listed as either federally endangered or threatened and reside in the Preserve. The federally listed species present in the Preserve are the Florida panther (endangered), West Indian manatee (endangered), Cape Sable seaside sparrow (endangered), Everglade snail kite (endangered), red-cockaded woodpecker (endangered), wood stork (endangered), American crocodile (threatened), eastern indigo snake (threatened), and American alligator (threatened due to similarity of appearance). Additionally, critical habitat has been designated for the West Indian manatee in the Preserve."
When the Preserve released its General Management Plan for the Addition lands in November 2010, it called for up to 130 miles of ORV trails, and as many as 650 ORV permits annually. Along the way to developing that plan, critics alleged that Preserve Superintendent Pedro Ramos and his staff went around Park Service Director Jon Jarvis' wishes and denied wilderness eligibility for 40,000 acres in the Addition section.
That GMP currently is being challenged in court. Critics warn that if the plan is allowed to move forward, and the Preserve's proposal for hunting is OKed, the fate of the Florida panther will be further jeopardized and individuals and groups that head into the Addition lands for solitude and a measure of what wild Florida looked like before development converted it will suffer.
"This area is going from essentially de facto wilderness ... to heavily motorized and hunting," Mr. Schwartz said. “They’re taking an area that was managed as de facto wilderness and opening it up to both public off-road vehicle use and public hunting for the first time in its history.”
Adds John Adornato, III, who directs the Sun Coast office of the National Parks Conservation Association: "I continue to learn from more and more hikers and people who spend time in the backcountry of Big Cypress, they really would like a place where they know there won't be hunting, that they can hike around, they can camp out, they can explore Big Cypress and not have to worry about being caught in crossfire.”
Mr. Adornato also is curious about the proposed adaptive management approach the Park Service would take if Alternative 3 is adopted.
"What are they proposing to do as adaptive management to make sure that their plan isn’t just trial and error or, utilizing adaptive management as a guessing game?" he wondered. “... There are specific requirements for outlining the implementation, monitoring, and then the plans for changing. So in other words, if the alternative proposes to do a plan, and then plan is found to be inadequate or it doesn’t meet the goal, they have to identify what alternatives options are that they will choose. They can’t just say, ‘Well, if it doesn’t work, we’ll try something else.’
“They have to say, 'Well, if it doesn’t work, these are the steps that we’ll take, or this is the thing that we’ll try.’"
According to a visitor survey conducted for the Park Service in 2007 by the University of Idaho Park Studies Unit, hunting and off-road driving are two of the lowest pursued activities in Big Cypress. Of the 634 respondents, just 7 percent said they were interested in ORV use in the Preserve, and just 4 percent were interested in hunting.
And while the enabling legislation of Big Cypress clearly gives the Interior secretary, and through him the National Park Service director, authority to restrict areas of the Preserve where hunting is allowed, a release from the Preserve seemingly indicates that hunting is a foregone conclusion, and what remains to be done is fashion a management plan for it.
"The purpose of the plan is to allow the Preserve superintendent to provide for hunting opportunities in a manner that is in the best interest of the Preserve's resources and the public, while meeting the requirements set forth by the NPS, the Preserve's enabling legislation, the NPS/FWC Cooperative Partnership Agreement, and all federal, state, and local laws and regulations," the release stated.
You can review the draft hunting plan, and comment on it, at this website.