Ducks on Lake Parker

Lakeland city commissioners today waded into the emotionally charged issue of duck hunting on city lakes after getting emails from residents along Lake Parker who complained of recent pre-dawn shotgun blasts near their homes and a city recreation trail that skirts the lake.

To the residents, hunting near neighborhoods presents a threat to safety and tranquility. To three hunters who spoke at today’s commission meeting, hunting on any part of Lake Parker is legal and any suggestion that it be curtailed is an affront to conservation, gun ownership and heritage.

Commissioners called for all parties to be considerate of one another and asked their staff to set up a public workshop with representatives of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission to air all sides of the issue and explore options.

Judy Kahler-Jalbert picked up on the commissioners’ theme of civility and neighborliness. “It’s about co-existence,” she said after the meeting. “It’s not anti-gun.”

Judy Kahler-Jalbert along the western shore of Lake Parker this afternoon near a sign marking the Lakeshore neighborhood. She objects to recent hunting in the heavily residential southwest portion of the lake.

During the meeting, she told commissioners that she comes from a family of duck hunters and that her 92-year-old father, a long-time hunter, “would have been one of the first ones out on the fitness trail telling the hunters that what they were doing was not doing anything for the promotion of duck hunting. Not only that, he never would have dreamed of shooting that close to houses and a fitness trail.”

Three hunting advocates spoke at today’s meeting. “I don’t understand why this conversation is moving forward,” said Travis Thompson of Winter Haven, a full-time hunting guide. “I think there’s a lack of understanding between the city, what hunting and conservation means, and being anti-gun or the perceived safety of guns. In the history of the world — I’ve done a records request from FWC — there’s never been an injury from a waterfowl hunter harming a non-hunter.”

The people who came to Lake Parker three times in recent weeks to hunt black-bellied whistling ducks did nothing illegal, he said. Under state law, hunting is legal on any state waters that have public access, as Lake Parker does.

Since the hunters did nothing illegal, Thompson said, “It’s either about being anti-hunting and anti-conservation or about being anti-gun.” It can’t be about noise, he said, because the city has other noise issues, such as the roar from Amazon cargo jets.

Black-bellied whistling ducks congregate on a dock near the recreation trail on the west side of Lake Parker. In the background is the Heritage Landings neighborhood on the peninsula north of The Lakes Church.

Wildlife is a public trust resource of the state of Florida, he said. “The state owns it. The state holds it in trust. The city of Lakeland does not have the ability to control who can and cannot hunt that wildlife.”

An article about the Lake Parker hunting issue published in The Ledger over the weekend mentioned a proposal under consideration by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission to establish a procedure to designate restricted hunting areas. But even if the proposal is adopted, Thompson said, the recent Lake Parker hunting would have been allowed because the hunters were more than 300 feet from residential driveways.

FWC has had its current restricted hunting area procedure in place since 1997, and so far only four municipalities have one in place.

“The local governmental body that has jurisdiction over the area of interest must make their request for a restricted hunting area in writing,” an FWC spokesperson said. Then the agency weighs safety against a “reasonable and lawful hunting opportunity.”

The possibility of a restricted hunting area designation prompted Kahler-Jalbert and other residents to contact the city.

Another speaker, local resident Andrew Spicer, said he was among the hunters at Lake Parker. He cited illegal harassment of the hunters by residents, including two who cursed at them and one who blew an airhorn to scare away they prey.

Peter Arcuri of Tampa told commissioners he hunts in Polk County frequently and participated in one of the Lake Parker hunts. He told commissioners that the hunters always shoot in a safe direction. “We never will shoot obviously toward a road of someone’s private property because that would be illegal and unsafe.”

Growth in Polk County means that there are fewer rural areas to hunt, he said: “Lakes I once hunted that had no homes around them do have homes around them now. You could hunt on the side of Lake Parker that there are no homes, but there aren’t any ducks there so why we would we go there to hunt? We go where the ducks are.”

After the hunting advocates spoke, commissioners responded to the suggestion that hunting isn’t a city matter by saying that it’s their job to respond to issues brought up by residents.

Phillip Walker, the longest-serving commissioner, said this is the first time the topic has come up in his 12 years in office. “When people approach us, we have to talk about it,” he said. It’s about having a dialogue, not setting restrictions, he said.

Commissioner Stephanie Madden said the commission provides a forum to talk things through. “That’s exactly what we’re here about — to be good neighbors. I absolutely understand that we have somebody here advocating on behalf of her neighborhood and someone here advocating on behalf of gun ownership and hunting, which is prioritized in the state of Florida.”

Commissioner Sara McCarley Roberts said she grew up in east Polk with a grandfather who taught her her fishing and hunting. “I understand there’s an etiquette to it. I know that I am not allowed to shoot in a grove. I know that I am not allowed to shoot in certain directions.”

Neighborhoods need to understand there’s an etiquette to it, she said. “This is not a gun issue in my mind. This is an etiquette and consideration issue of living within the city limits — how do we help and work together … If you all can be considerate of one another, I think that would help this move forward. I don’t think this needs to be an issue full of animosity and a diatribe.”

Commissioners Mike Musick and Chad McLeod said they want to hear an airing of the issues but they do not want to restrict legal hunting rights.

Commissioner Bill Read, who travels to Apalachicola and Lake Kissimmee to hunt ducks, said he had not considered hunting on Lake Parker, where he lives; he predicted that now that more people realize duck hunting is legal on Lake Parker, there will be many more hunters there when the 60-day hunting season re-opens next September.

Mayor Bill Mutz closed the conversation with a request to City Attorney Palmer Davis to arrange a public hunting workshop with FWC and a call for seeking “a mutual middle.”

“We live in a world today that wants to polarize left or right; it’s either this or that. This is about mutual middle and understanding. This is about people having the civility to be as concerned for others as they are representing what they have the rights to be able to do.

MORE COVERAGE: The Ledger initial article and meeting coverage (subscribers only) | News Channel 8

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Barry Friedman founded in 2015 as the culmination of a career in print and digital journalism. Since 1982, he has used the tools of reporting, editing and content curation to help people in Lakeland understand their community better.

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