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Florida continues to expand public hunting opportunities

Thanks to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and its many partners and cooperators, the future of hunting in Florida looks bright.

The FWC continues to support and promote the hunting tradition by helping open up new public lands for hunting, expanding hunting opportunities on public and private lands, recruiting new hunters and developing programs to get families more involved in the hunting heritage.

The Sunshine State is blessed to have one of the nation’s largest wildlife management area (WMA) systems – encompassing more than 5.8 million acres of public hunting land.

The FWC manages 1.1 million of these acres, and the FWC’s “partners for public hunting” contribute the remaining acreage.

These partners are: the Florida Division of Forestry (DOF), Northwest Florida Water Management District, Suwannee River Water Management District, St. Johns River Water Management District, South Florida Water Management District, Southwest Florida Water Management District, Florida Armory Board, Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), Florida Department of Corrections, U.S. Forest Service (USFS), U.S. Department of Defense, National Park Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Plum Creek Timber Company, Rayonier, PotashCorp, the city of Jacksonville, PRIDE Enterprises and the Miccosukee Indian Tribe.

Because of these partnerships and the shared interest of continuing to grow Florida’s wildlife management area system, 32 new public hunting areas have been added since 2005, totaling more than 141,000 acres. Several expanded hunting opportunities also have been created on public and private land over the past five years.

Migratory game bird hunting has been added to 49 public hunting areas, and nighttime raccoon hunting has been established on 10 additional public hunting areas.

The FWC added or expanded hog hunting opportunity on 75 public hunting areas to the extent that wild hogs are now legal to take during every hunting season except spring turkey on most WMAs.

Also, quota permit requirements were removed from 56 quota hunts over the past five years, after the FWC decided that limits on hunter numbers were no longer needed for those hunts.

Bobwhite quail, the once popular game bird, has declined drastically in population throughout Florida and its former range. Because of this, the FWC has been working with Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy, DOF, DEP and the USFS to try to reverse this trend. The agencies have collectively funded the Upland Ecosystem Restoration Project and taken advantage of grant funding and donations to accomplish quail management and habitat restoration.

Over the past five years, quail enhancement areas have been established on Apalachicola, Blackwater, Jennings Forest, Three Lakes and Twin Rivers-Blue Springs Unit WMAs. Best land management practices for quail are being employed on these five areas and harvests are being restricted during this research, which annually monitors and evaluates the effects these techniques have on bird populations.

In 2006, the FWC expanded snow goose hunting from north and west of the Suwannee River to the entire state.

Two years later, the agency also expanded Canada goose season to statewide, previously offered only at Northwest Florida’s Lake Seminole.

The FWC listened to its hunting stakeholders when asked if it would manage the state’s deer population at a more local level. Effective with the 2010-11 season, the FWC passed rules to increase hunter satisfaction by adjusting hunting season dates, moving a zone boundary line and adding a zone, so that the new zones and dates correspond better with times of peak deer activity throughout the state.

In 2006, the FWC created a crossbow season on private lands to give crossbow hunters more opportunity. This new season not only enabled crossbow hunters to get into the woods earlier, it also enabled vertical-bow hunters more hunting days by allowing the use of bows during the crossbow season and the use of both crossbows and bows during the muzzleloading gun season on private property.

These rule changes give hunters more opportunity and help recruit and retain more folks in the sport, because some youth and older hunters have more difficulty using a compound bow than they do a crossbow. This concept was popular enough that the Commission recently passed rules to expand the crossbow season on private land beginning next year.

Starting with the 2011-12 hunting season, crossbow hunters will be able to get in the woods a month earlier on private lands and join the archery hunters in pursuing deer of either sex.

Other actions the FWC has taken since 2005 to recruit and retain hunters include establishing the Youth Hunting Program of Florida, the Florida Youth Conservation Centers Network and establishing a youth spring turkey hunt on private lands. Furthermore, the FWC supported the action by the Florida Legislature to create the Hunter Safety Deferral Mentoring Exemption License.

In 2005, the FWC launched its Youth Hunting Program of Florida to provide quality hunting experiences for 12- to 17-year-olds and increase the number of youths involved in hunting.

The statewide program averages nearly 60 hunts and introduces about 600 youths and parents to the sport each year, giving many of them their first taste of hunting in a positive, safe, educational and mentored setting. To learn more about the Youth Hunting Program of Florida or to see how you can get involved, go to MyFWC.com/YHPF.

A year later, the FWC supported legislation for the Hunter Safety Deferral Mentoring Exemption License. This license, which costs the same as a regular resident hunting license, enables those over 15 years of age and born after 1975 to give hunting a try for one year under the direct supervision of a licensed hunter 21 or older, before having to take and pass the state’s hunter safety course.

The hope is that after hunting one full season, most participants will have enjoyed their experience in the woods and will want to continue hunting, in which case they would need to complete Florida’s hunter safety certification before they could buy a hunting license and be allowed to hunt in future years.

Today’s youth spend half as much time outdoors as kids a decade ago did, so in 2009, the FWC launched the Florida Youth Conservation Centers Network (FYCCN.org) to help reverse this trend.

Currently, there are five facilities in the network designed to strengthen the connections between youth and their support for wildlife conservation through activities like hunting, archery, fishing, kayaking and wildlife viewing.

The five centers are the Beau Turner Youth Conservation Center outside of Tallahassee, Tenoroc Youth Conservation Center near Lakeland, the Ocala Conservation Center and Youth Camp, the Everglades Youth Conservation Camp and Chinsegut Nature Center in Brooksville.

The FWC also plans to build additional youth centers within the urban counties of Miami-Dade, Broward, Pinellas, Duval, Osceola and Citrus. New this spring on private land will be the first-ever youth spring turkey hunt weekend – another opportunity the FWC has established to help recruit young hunters and encourage adults to take kids hunting. The two-day, Saturday-Sunday hunt occurs the weekend prior to the opening of spring turkey season in each hunting zone.

Only those under 16 are allowed to harvest a turkey, and they have to be supervised by an adult, 18 years or older. The first family quota hunt was established by the FWC in 2005 and was only one hunt on one WMA.

Since then, family hunts have been expanded to 23 hunts on 17 WMAs for the 2010-2011 hunting season. These family hunts create a great opportunity to help get families more involved in hunting.

With family hunt quota permits, the adult permit holder gets to take one or two youths (between the ages of 8 and 15) on a supervised hunt, and each hunter has the opportunity of harvesting his or her own daily bag limit of game.

The FWC is always looking to form new partnerships and will continue to foster existing ones with the intent of opening up more public hunting land and further expanding hunting opportunities. It will also seek creative ways to recruit and retain hunters, involving more families in the hunting tradition.

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By Tony Young

FWC Media Relations Coordinator,

Division of Hunting and Game Management