Hunters on verge of new access in Big Cypress National Preserve

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has advanced a plan to allow hunting in the 147,000 acres of “addition lands” in the Big Cypress National Preserve.

Commissioners, meeting last week in Fort Myers, said a unanimous yes to a hunting management plan for the area that has already passed muster with the National Park Service and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The three agencies have been working together in conjunction with the hunting community for more than four years.

If the plan gets the final nod at the FWC’s September meeting — which seems all but certain — the addition could be opened for hunting as soon as this fall. The new Big Cypress Wildlife Management Area would then total more than 728,000 acres.

At first, hunting in the new grounds would be walk-in only from I-75 rest areas at mile markers 63 and 51. No off-road vehicles will be allowed pending completion of an ORV trail plan.

Deer and turkey seasons will be conducted by quota permit with only 30 issued. There would be no quotas required for small-game season, and other seasons would fall in line with those in the original preserve.

“It’s a great day for the Big Cypress,” commissioner Ron Bergeron of Weston told the gathering Thursday. “It’s been a long time coming.”

Hunters were elated.

“At long last, we do have some way to put our two feet in the addition lands,” said Lyle McCandless of the Big Cypress Sportsmen’s Alliance.

Commissioners said they hope to increase hunting opportunities in the addition in the future.

In other action, commissioners adopted a resolution calling on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to develop an emergency high-water action plan for the 750,000-acre Central Everglades region. Bergeron, the commission’s Everglades point man, has been hammering the Corps since last summer about detrimental effects on wildlife such as deer, bears and panthers from prolonged high water levels in the region north of Tamiami Trail.

Several meetings held among FWC staffers, Corps officials, and other state and federal agencies have failed to produce a plan for lowering water levels when they exceed two feet for more than 60 days. Said FWC section leader Scott Sanders following a June 9 session: “The discussion of the meeting indicated that the [Corps] is not focused on actions to relieve high water for the 2014 wet season.”

Bergeron said he was “very disappointed” with the Corps. He said restoring historic water flows in the Everglades will take another 25 to 30 years and that wildlife resources in the area must be protected while the Glades is being re-plumbed.

Also last week, commissioners voted not to extend hunting to 24 hours on public lands during the annual statewide alligator hunt that begins Aug. 15. Commissioners said they were concerned about spoiled gator meat making its way into the marketplace with more reptiles being harvested during the heat of the day.