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All hunting banned on Circle B Bar Preserve!

by Chuck Echenique

Those of you that chase waterfowl across our glorious state know how hard it is to find a pristine marsh suitable for duck hunting.

One such place, the Circle B Bar Preserve in Lakeland, Fla., is a true gem. Situated to the northwest of Lake Hancock in central Polk County, the once private ranch has become a public attraction for both birders and waterfowlers.

Now, after three years of successful hunting, the Polk County Board of County Commissioners – with strong influence from the Sierra Club and Audubon Society – have taken it away.

When the initial 5-year management plan was instituted in 2004, duck hunting was included as part of the multi-use functions on this public parcel. As the current plan sunsets this year, the Conservation Lands Acquisition and Stewardship Advisory Committee (CLASAC) of Polk County – which acts as the advisory board for management on the reserve – was charged once again with developing a new 5-year plan.

The proposal presented by the CLASAC Board suggested eliminating all but two youth hunts on the 470-acre marsh, with a caveat that any child participating in those hunts would first be required to attend educational classes on conservation, hunting and environmental sciences at the facility.

Over the last several months, I have participated in efforts led by United Waterfowlers of Florida (UW-F) and their Polk County Regional Director, Dennis Dutcher, to keep duck hunting viable on this marsh. The group presented its own plan for continued duck hunting, which expanded the current hunts from 5 mornings to 20 mornings over the course of the entire duck hunting season.

However, I suspect that “home cooking” and back room deals, doomed any hope of continued support by the Polk County Commissioners. Key accomplices in the defeat of continued hunting were Sierra Club board members Marian Ryan, Chuck Geanangel and Al Grohlich (all of whom hold seats on the CLASAC board) and Lakeland Ledger environmental writer Tom Palmer.

It appears to me that, because of anti-hunting articles written by Mr. Palmer, a well organized anti-hunting letter writing campaign by the Sierra Club and its members, easily-rigged online polls and inside manipulation of the processes by which this land is governed, ALL hunting has now been eliminated as a continued recreational activity.

The final blow came on the morning of the vote when a representative from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) provided a written position to the county commission, which essentially claimed that a formal complaint of “eagle molestation” had been reported, claiming disturbance from gunfire.

It further warned that a possible investigation and subsequent fines could be forthcoming if the activities continued. The USFWS, at the urging of the Sierra Club and Marian Ryan, expanded the current buffer zones for the Bald Eagle Management Plan (BEMP) from 330 to 660 feet at all times (750 feet when hunting in wooded areas and 1,500 feet when hunting in open areas near a nest) to 1/2-mile and 1-mile buffer zones respectively. This change essentially made the entire marsh off-limits to any hunting, due to the locations of three nests on the property.

They did this by claiming that gun shots would fall under “Category H of the BEMP” (which pertains to fireworks and Class B explosives). In my opinion, this was a clear misuse of the USFWS guidelines and was used to place pressure on Polk County commissioners, who did not have all the facts in front of them at the time of their decision.

For a complete overview of the various BEMP laws, visit the following sites online:

• http://www.floridaconservation.org/docs/WildlifeHabitats/Eagle_RecoveryManagementPlanBrochure.pdf

• http://myfwc.com/WILDLIFEHABITATS/EagleFacts_Conservation.htm

• http://www.fws.gov/pacific/eagle/NationalBaldEagleManagementGuidelines.pdf.

Even with well-documented support from Ducks Unlimited (DU), FWC, Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD), the Florida Wildlife Federation, as well as numerous individual emails, letters and a petition containing over 1,100 signatures in support of continued hunting at Circle B Preserve, the commissioners refused to hear any comments at the hearing.

Approval of the management plan by SWFWMD is still pending. However, without any further public hearings, this measure will surely pass without any further discussion.

At this time, it is being debated in some circles whether or not the “No Net Hunting Loss” laws will apply or if Sunshine Laws were violated in the process. This is noteworthy in that it may provide a legal basis for preserving our hunting rights on the Circle B.

Folks, this was a clear case of shady politics. Allowing anti-hunting groups like the Sierra Club to populate and control governing boards that oversee land acquisition and recreational uses involving hunting is a slap in the collective faces of all outdoorsmen.

What’s worse is back on March 25, 2008, the National Sierra Club revoked Florida’s charter. The organization removed the state chapter from their websites and all listings – stating they could not continue to recruit membership for the organization for four years.

However, the state and many local chapters continue to operate under the Sierra Club name without reprisal. Let your displeasure be heard. Even if you don’t duck hunt, this case could set a dangerous precedent. The manipulation of BEMP guidelines to curtail hunting is a tactic that Sierra Club and other anti-hunting organizations will surely attempt to utilize over and over again – especially when it is this successful.

Without your voices of disapproval, these groups will continue to run roughshod over hunters with similar results. Get in the game, and make your voice heard. Send your letters to:

Polk County BOCC

330 W. Church Street,

Bartow, FL 33830 and

SWFWMD

2379 Broad Street,

Brooksville, FL 34604.

Thanks for your support, and keep safe while out in the woods and on the waters of our great state.

Chuck Echenique is a Florida native who lives in Thonotosassa, Fla. He has served on the board of the NWTF Tampa Chapter since 1999, as well as Ducks Unlimited, and is an active member of Quails Unlimited, SCI, RMEF, Buckmasters, NRA and NAHC. He has served as a hunter education instructor since 1989 and as a turkey guide since 1995. He can be reached at: [email protected]