Want to hunt a refuge? Fish a hatchery?
Service opens more lands for hunting, fishing
St. Marks, Florida — The slash pine forest is thick and overgrown, impenetrable due to walls of saw palmetto, gallberry and fetterbush. A hunter this season would more likely get lost in there than bag a whitetail.
Next season, though, will be different.
“We’re going to do some big time habitat restoration,” said Dan Frisk, project leader for the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge and other North Florida refuges, while touring the forest along U.S. 98. “We’ll provide more access and better roads. Ultimately, it will be good hunting territory.”
The so-called Newport Unit was donated to the refuge in 2018. Frisk called the 6,200-acre gift from a Midwestern industrialist a “godsend.” He immediately set about opening up the dense tract for more deer, turkey, hog and small-game hunts. Roads have been smoothed, potholes patched and fires, to strategically burn the underbrush, set. Next comes forest thinning, herbicide spreading and planting of longleaf pine.
It’s all part of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to boost hunting and fishing on refuges and hatcheries. Nearly 1.5 million additional acres nationwide were opened this summer to hunters and anglers. In all, 77 refuges and 15 hatcheries added more hunts, more land for hunting, more species to hunt or more hours to hunt. The goal, in addition to getting more people into the woods or onto the water, is to more closely align federal and state hunting rules.
“Hunting and fishing have such a rich history in this country, particularly in the South, so anything we can do to boost those outdoor experiences, while helping local economies, we will gladly do,” said Leo Miranda, an avid hunter and the Service’s regional director for the South Atlantic-Gulf and Mississippi Basin regions. “And the work we do restoring habitats for deer, turkey and other game species directly benefits many at risk, threatened and endangered species.”
Boosting hunting and fishing won’t come easily. The number of licensed hunters nationwide peaked in 1980 at 17.4 million, according to the Service. In 2016, only 11.5 million people hunted. (More than three times as many people fished.) Miranda and other Service officials expect the new rules to draw new hunters onto refuges and keep long-timers like Jeff Lawhon coming back for more.
“St. Marks is a real pretty place to hunt,” said Lawhon, 45, who lives in nearby Sopchoppy and has hunted deer and turkey on the refuge for years. “There’s a lot of marsh and palm trees and pine trees. It’s unique. You’ve got a mixture of central and south Florida in north Florida. And there’s some really big deer on that refuge.”
“Un-encumbering the hunter”
The Service, which manages 567 wildlife refuges and 70 hatcheries nationwide, announced in late August that opportunities to hunt and fish will be expanded at 70 refuges. Seven refuges currently closed to hunting and angling will be opened. In all, two-thirds of the nation’s refuges will now allow hunting and/or fishing. And, for the first time, the land around 15 hatcheries will too.
Matching federal hunting and fishing rules with state priorities gets to the heart of the expanded recreational opportunities. The Service eliminated or streamlined 5,000 refuge-specific regulations regarding which species may be hunted, length of seasons, bag or creel limits, and hunting or fishing methods. Margaret Everson, the Service’s Principal Deputy Director, said the new rules “are compatible with our conservation management goals.”
The changes impact the South, in particular, which remains a hunting and fishing hotbed. While overall hunting participation is down the last decade, more than 813,000 hunters stalked deer, hogs or waterfowl last year, up 15,000 from the year before. They visited 86 of the region’s 130 refuges. More than 3.7 million anglers — up five percent — took to refuge waterways.
Hunters and anglers gained more access to 10 refuges and two hatcheries across the South this year, a total of 125,000 additional acres.
An additional 4,000 acres at the Okefenokee refuge in Georgia, for example, is now open. The coyote season was extended at Clarks River refuge in Kentucky to align with the state’s season. A new, one-day youth hunt is being offered at Mattamuskeet refuge in North Carolina.
St. Marks, in the Florida Panhandle, embraced the new mandates. Sam Shine, the Midwestern industrialist who donated the 6,200-acre forested tract to the Service last year, had previously leased the property to the state of Florida for hunting. Now under Service control, the refuge is incorporating state rules, and streamlining federal rules, on the Shine property and other units of the 80,000-acre refuge.
The refuge did away with check-ins and check-outs this year so hunters can get to and from their stands quicker. Crossbows, a favorite of tech-savvy millennials, are welcomed for all archery hunts. Electric-assisted bicycles, or e-bikes, may be used across the north Florida refuge system.
“We’re really trying to un-encumber the hunter,” said refuge ranger David Moody.
Lawhon, the Sopchoppy hunter, gives St. Marks high marks for hunting habitat, maintenance and harvest. His then-six-year-old son shot his first gobbler on the refuge. Four years ago, the boy got an eight-point buck that weighed maybe 180 pounds.
“For Florida, that’s really good,” said Lawhon, a commercial beekeeper who also works in a fire department. “There are a lot better deer in that area than further inland.”
About half of the refuge is open to hunting. And they’re all quota hunts, except for small game and hogs, with permits handled by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Lawhon didn’t get a permit for November’s general gun season, but he’ll continue applying and racking up points. He credits the refuge for keeping the number of hunters at a reasonable level and for managing the herd well. And, while Lawhon lauds plans to thin out and burn the new Newport Unit, he’s not above tromping through underbrush in search of prey.
“I like to hunt the marshland, the thicker lands,” said Lawhon, 45. “When other hunters are moving around, they pressure the deer into that direction. You also got big pine ridges that are clean and go right up to the marsh and sable palm hammocks. There’s some good opportunities in there.”
Frisk, the project leader, said more and easier hunting won’t interfere with the refuge’s traditional purpose. St. Marks, just 20 miles below Tallahassee, was one of the nation’s first refuges, established to provide wintering habitat for migratory birds. Fresh and saltwater marshes, along with restored longleaf pine stands, provide wonderful habitat for bald eagles, alligators, red-cockaded woodpeckers and flatwoods salamanders. Its famed, historic lighthouse anchors the refuge’s 40 miles of Apalachee Bay coastline.
“We can balance hunting with our other constituencies too. That’s part of our challenge,” Frisk said. “Hunting is a valid, biological tool to control herds of deer and hogs. But it also provides recreation and heritage. We believe these activities are compatible on St. Marks.”
“Every opportunity to succeed”
A greater challenge, though, and one the new rules are intended to address, remains the dwindling interest in hunting and fishing overall. Baby boomers, the largest cohort of U.S. hunters, are aging out of the sport. The Service reports that only five percent of Americans, 16 years and older, hunt. Roughly 2.2 million fewer hunting licenses were sold between 2011 and 2016, according to the Service’s National Survey of Hunting, Fishing and Wildlife-Associated Recreation. The percentage of anglers remained the same.
Fewer hunters and anglers bodes ill for all wildlife lovers. (The number of bird watchers, hikers and photographers, who enjoy the same refuges as hunters and anglers, skyrockets.) Migratory bird hunters aged 16 and up, for example, must buy Duck Stamp licenses with the revenue targeted to acquire refuge habitats and conservation easements. Excise taxes on firearms, ammo and other hunting-related items help states conserve wildlife and boost outdoor recreation. A similar tax on fishing equipment supports sport fish habitat, wetlands conservation, fish stocking and research. Getting more people into the woods and onto the water, then, is critical.
“The demographics are changing,” Frisk said, “which is why we are keen to expose youth to hunting.”
Each December the refuge hosts 10 kids keen to hunt their first deer. (A spring turkey hunt is also held annually for youth under 16.) A special spot on the refuge is reserved for the young hunters who pay $75, if they can afford it, for the three-day affair. The kids study gun safety and the ethics of hunting and practice at the local sheriff department’s shooting range. A .223 caliber rifle is provided.
Refuge staff carefully tend the Port Leon unit where the hunt takes place. They roller-chop the brush, apply herbicides, plant tasty cover crops and burn the plot every two years. Unimpeded sight lines allow the young hunters a good opportunity to harvest a deer or a hog ambling through the hardwood hammock 50 yards away. Kids share a stand with a guardian and a guide, usually a Service employee. Two deer (one with antlers) per hunter is the limit. Harvest rate: 70 percent. Deer are cleaned Sunday morning.
“We try to give ‘em every opportunity to succeed,” said Bart Rye, a wildland fire specialist and guide at St. Marks. “We want that first experience to be positive so they stay involved.”
Dan Chapman, Public Affairs Specialist
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