Ducks on Lake Parker

Duck hunters’ predawn shotgun blasts echoed across a cove in southwest Lake Parker three times in January, startling lakeside homeowners and prompting calls to police and state fish and game officers.

On Jan. 30, Florida waterfowl season’s last day, state agents observing the hunters issued written warnings for banned lead shot in one boat and to one waterfowler for not having his hunting license with him.

But local police and state agents didn’t issue citations or file charges because they said they didn’t observe the wing-shooters — who were gunning for black-bellied whistling ducks, prized as tablefare — break any laws or commit any verifiable safety violations. 

The hunters claim they were within their rights, hunting in accordance with Florida hunting regulations on state waters and discharging shotguns within the parameters of state statute. They denied lakefront residents’ claims of unsafe shooting and other unethical alleged behaviors, such as revving motors to flush ducks.

Those January shotgun blasts, nevertheless, continue to reverberate. 

Neighborhood residents have addressed the issue at least twice before the Lakeland City Commission in the last six weeks, demanding the city take action. Duck-hunters made one appearance, reminding the city it has no jurisdiction on state waters and warning they’d fight any attempt to curtail public access to public waters.  

After researching the issue, Lakeland City Attorney Palmer Davis determined that only the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission (FWC) can impose hunting restrictions on state waters, and any exceptions to that would require an arduous process and be subject to a politically charged vote.

Nevertheless, at residents’ request, the city has agreed to study its options, including pursuing that process, which allows municipalities to petition the FWC to create restricted areas in places where urbanization makes hunting — even with relatively short-range shotguns — unsafe.

In doing so, by agreeing to study the issue and possibly petitioning the FWC to approve a restricted hunting area on the south end of Lake Parker, the city has amplified the reverb from those January shotgun blasts nationwide. Its echoes are now resonating with — and animating — an advocacy spectrum that includes national organizations based in Washington, D.C., Columbus, Ohio, Newton, Conn., and Tucson, Ariz. 

Because what happened in Lakeland is not the beginning of the story, nor will its conclusion be the end. 

As far as organizations like Delta Waterfowl, United Waterfowlers, the Sportsmen’s Alliance, Safari Club International, the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, Artemis Sportswoman, the National Shooting Sports Foundation and National Wildlife Federation, among others, are concerned, what’s happening in Lakeland is merely the latest chapter in a never-ending fight. And they vow to make no concessions.

Hunters: No more compromises

“We’ve already reached a compromise: we’re allowed to hunt 60 days a season. They cannot restrict hunting on state waters and, as a hunting community, we are reticent in accepting any compromise, in settling,” said Travis Thompson of Winter Haven, a full-time hunting guide who is Founder/CEO of All Florida conservation group, sits on the sportsman’s advisory board for the National Wildlife Federation’s Vanishing Paradise, and serves on FWC’s technical advisory groups for Aquatic Plant Management and Communication.

Travis Thompson

“This is part of a bigger, broader issue statewide. If we create restricted hunting areas, ‘Sorry duck hunters, you can’t hunt here anymore,’ it’s a slippery slope argument,” he said. “You are not going to see an entity (city, county) require developers to create offsets (buffers) on the water” when building new lakeside homes.

“No,” he continued “they’ll take that offset from the hunter. So, I will respect the fact that you own a house on a lake, but for 60 days a year, I get to use this public resource to participate in an activity I pay fees to enjoy.”

His position was amplified by Cyrus Baird, senior director of government affairs for Washington, D.C.-based Delta Waterfowl. “This is not some weird niche issue. Urbanization is going to make this a statewide issue,” Baird said. “What happened in Lakeland — a vocal minority of landowners who happen to live in great duck-hunting spots — brought this into the mainstream.”

The FWC has only approved four restricted hunting areas (RHAs) since they created the petition process in 1997. The latest created was in Cassleberry, near Orlando, three years ago, where housing developments are crowded along the shorelines of several small lakes.

“The difference with Cassleberry is the city owns the entirety of those lakes and the access to them. It is essentially like a private landowner,” Thompson said. “That’s not the case on Lake Parker. It’s waters of the state, submerged sovereign land, and it is not the city’s to control.”

The city of Cassleberry and the FWC signed an April 2019 Memorandum of Understanding in which the commission said “it is FWC’s intent not to oppose the city’s ability to manage hunting within the city limits on privately-owned and city-owned lands and waters.”

Draft new hunting regulations tabled

About three years ago, in response to development encroaching on traditional hunting areas, the FWC began studying the prospect of “enhanced RHAs.” By last summer, the proposed new draft rules were posted on FWC’s Restricted Hunting Areas page.

Under the tentatively outlined new rules, a city/county could petition FWC for a restricted hunting area if it had:

  • Documentation that the area had an average dwelling density of not less than 1 dwelling per acre. 
  • If it passed a resolution clearly seeking a restricted hunting area that includes sign-offs from residents within the area that they know of the designation and do not oppose it.
  • Detailed maps and legal descriptions of the proposed area. 
  • A local law enforcement agency or agencies agreeing to enforce restricted hunting rules in the area.

If these criteria are met, FWC could then issue a permit authorizing the establishment of an RHA, cemented by the local government adopting an ordinance detailing restrictions and exemptions.

Within the “enhanced RHAs,” the new rules would prohibit taking game with a firearm within 300 feet of a dwelling by anyone other than the landowner or without written permission to do so from the landowner. 

The proposal was hotly contested by outdoors and conservation groups. They were to be introduced at FWC’s May board meeting and then again at its August board meeting. That never happened. The proposal was pulled both times, and the draft rules have not made an appearance since.

But that is why the city’s response to residents’ reactions to those January shotgun blasts on Lake Parker resonated across the nation and will prompt, in turn, fervent, coordinated and well-financed opposition. The big guns, literally, are now sighting in.

The FWC was going to “revisit it the first part of this year. To my knowledge, they have not initiated any conversation with us. We haven’t seen anything pop up in the rule-making cycle,” Baird said. “But if they weren’t going to revisit it, they will now.”

Existing laws

Outdoors and conservation organizations maintain state laws already address unsafe firearms discharges in residential areas, and an annually updated book of regulations proscribe when and where hunting can occur. 

Thompson cites Section 4 of Florida Statute 790.15, which states it is a first-degree misdemeanor to “recklessly or negligently discharge a firearm outdoors on (as in at) any property used primarily as the site of a dwelling.”  

The reckless and negligent component remains in effect even though the law allows “discharge of a firearm … on public properties expressly approved for hunting by the Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission,” which Lake Parker is.

The law “doesn’t have to do with taking game, it has to do with discharging a firearm. The protections exists for these homeowners, they have that protection already,” Thompson said, adding birdshot has an effective range of 40-45 yards and “falls” beyond that “won’t cause damage. If shot landed on someone’s roof, the law provides a remedy — ‘trespassing by projectile.’”

Cyrus Baird

“In my mind, there are already rules on the book to address this situation,” Baird agreed. “If you have someone hunting along the edge of their property, or at the end of their dock, that is an issue. If they are shooting in the direction of someone’s house, that is a violation. Certain directional components like that, we would like to see that included in (any new rule) rather than a blanket distance” such as the 300 feet in the proposed enhanced RHA draft rule.

“We’re going to see more and more riparian rights wanting to extend into submerged water rights. I’m not sure how that ends,” Thompson said. 

Florida Statute describes riparian rights as “those incident to land bordering upon navigable waters. They are rights of ingress, egress, boating, bathing, and fishing and such others as may be or have been defined by law. Such rights are not of a proprietary nature.”

“There is going to have to be an urbanized component to hunting in Florida if we are going to continue to develop as rapidly as we are,” Thompson said. “I don’t like the idea of urban hunting but I also live in Florida and that is something we are going to have to learn to live with.”

The irony, he said, is while a restricted hunting area would prohibit hunting, it wouldn’t necessarily preclude discharging firearms. “Even if the city was to put in a restricted hunting area, I could go out there and sight my gun, shoot at clay targets, all day long,” he said.

The residents who appeared before the City Commission have dominated the public discussion and news coverage so far.  But that’s about to change, Baird said, as outdoors publications such as “Outdoor Life” and “MeatEater” — read by millions across North America — catch wind of what, to them, is an ongoing story.

“It’s definitely been an issue that we’ve known about in the waterfowl hunting community, obviously, and it gained national-level coverage when we were going through” the RHA review, he said.

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.

“Delta Waterfowl has been engaged in this process since day one,” Thompson said. “The NSSF, Safari Club, Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, National Wildlife Federation, The Sportsmen’s Alliance” are all engaged and will commit resources — the proverbial lawyers, guns and money — to challenging any attempt to expand restricted hunting areas. 

Any attempt to restrict discharging firearms on the lake as now allowed will “be met by strong opposition from the gun lobby” which makes it “a completely different debate,” he said. “If it becomes adversarial to the gun community in Florida, and if the NRA gets involved, it’s going to be a circus.”

Groups already engaged include the Sportsmen’s Alliance, based in Columbus, Ohio, which has 20,000 members nationwide and monitors hunting-related bills in state legislatures.

“The Sportsmen’s Alliance is closely monitoring this situation and will step in to protect duck hunters in the Lakeland area and throughout the state,” Sportsmen’s Alliance President/CEO Evan Heusinkveld said. “Time and again we see folks buying property in and around traditional duck hunting areas and then complaining. Water is a public resource in Florida and the Sportsmen’s Alliance will fight to ensure that it remains so.”

Tucson, Ariz.-based Safari Club International, with approximately 50,000 members and 200 chapters in all 50 U.S. states and 106 countries, is also watching — from afar and near.

“SCI is monitoring the debate over restricted hunting areas and is prepared to protect hunter acres with all of our advocacy resources, including the activation of our local advocacy resources and legal action where our litigation team may deem it appropriate,” SCI Executive Vice President of International Government and Public Affairs Ben Cassidy said.

Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation Southeast Coordinator Mark Lance said his Washington, D.C.-headquartered conservation organization’s advocacy network, which works closely with state lawmakers and the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus, “has been involved for the last two years” in regulatory reviews of the enhanced restricted hunting area rules.

“From the very beginning, we understood the FWC was in a difficult position — under pressure from homeowners and hunters. They have been in a tight spot,” he said. “At the same time, the 300-foot buffer zone” is unacceptable to duck hunters.

Lance agreed with Baird in noting “a directional component to the rule” could be added to “alleviate concerns of the homeowners while also ensuring access to hunters. In a state like Florida, you cannot hang the hunters out to dry — they’re the biggest contributors to conservation in the state.”

Birdfeed draws ducks – and hunters

Residents maintain the hunters got within seven feet from the shoreline on occasion. Several said they were stunned to learn hunting is “allowed” in city limits. They described the sights and sounds of the hunt as “inappropriate” near a residential area, and being disturbed at dawn by the sounds of gunshot on a Saturday and a Sunday. One said he found a dead duck.

One resident submitted a two-page letter to commissioners with “12 questions that need to be answered,” each one beginning with, “What is the city going to do to protect …” people who attend a nearby church, children enrolled in a preschool in the neighborhood, nursing home residents who sit in wheelchairs on the lake’s western shoreline, and to “ensure that FWC enforces hunting regulations on our lakes, not just give hunters a slap on the wrist for using illegal shot, not picking up duck carcasses, hunting without a license and trespassing on private boat ramps to enter the lake?”

Read the 12 questions here.

But fish and game officers who observed hunters after the initial complaints found no evidence of such behavior, noting wingshooters never directed fire toward homes and no “illegal shot” was found anywhere on residential properties. The hunters launched from public land, they noted. Written warning to one hunter who did not have a license on his presence and the lead shot was not chambered, so there was no discernible violation, they determined.

“Is there credence to their complaints? It’s all hearsay. Law enforcement came out three times and found nothing illegal,” Thompson said.

In fact, the only illegal activity observed by fish and game officers was a homeowner who used a bullhorn to disrupt hunters, Thompson said. He added that if it happens again, waterfowlers will demand hunter harassment charges be filed and insist the state prosecute.

Residents, including several who have lived on the south end of the lake for decades, say they have no recollection of duck hunting on Lake Parker. 

“I don’t know where they are getting their facts,” Thompson said, noting the area around Adams Point was a well-known waterfowl hunting hot spot for decades, where homeowners put duck decoys on back lawns, on docks, on lines strung from docks and hunted from backyards.

But that was on the lake’s north end where there was, and remains, less residential development. What changed?

Lakeside homeowners are feeding ducks, which is not illegal in Florida, although feeding other wild animals is, Thompson said, creating the whole issue in the first place. 

“They say, ‘Why don’t you go to the other side of the lake?’ There are no ducks there. Where would you like me to hunt? No one wants to hunt where there are houses. The reason the ducks are congregating there is people are feeding them,” he said. “They’re drawing ducks. Stop feeding them and the ducks will go away.”

And the south end of Lake Parker, especially the cove where homeowners are objecting to duck hunting, “is the nastiest place we have ever seen,” Thompson said, noting waterfowlers recently spent a day cleaning the shoreline and “pulled 22 bags of garbage, contractor-sized bags” of trash and debris from the shoreline.

The hunters “were legally enjoying a resource they pay a fee to enjoy in a really dirty area and this is the issue these people have?” he said. “It’s really about two things: You’re either anti-hunting or anti-gun.”

Thompson said the lakeside homeowners’ complaints aren’t about safety but are “straw man arguments.” 

“What is the safety issue at hand? Frankly there isn’t any. There has never been an incident in the history of Florida where a waterfowl hunter has hurt a non-hunter,” he said. “So, where is the safety issue? Is it about gunfire? Firearms? (Restricted hunting areas) don’t remove the ability to target shoot, to pistol shoot, just to shoot for fun. It’s an anti-hunting issue or an anti-gun issue.”

City options

One option for the city is to follow through with residents’ request to study the prospect of petitioning the FWC to create a restricted hunting area along parts of Lake Parker’s south shore. If the city creates a group to study the issue, Thompson said he’d volunteer. 

But any participation will end if there is a presumption that the duck-hunters were doing anything wrong, he said. 

“Why does that question jumpstart the conversation?” Thompson said. “You have two user groups, homeowners and ducks hunters, no one has broken the law, except (the homeowner) with the bullhorn.” 

During one discussion, Lakeland City Commissioner Bill Read, who said he is a waterfowler, suggested residents mount feeders to draw ducks making it technically illegal to hunt in the area because hunting over “baited areas” is prohibited under FWC hunting regulations.

In the commission’s April 1 agenda study meeting, Mayor Bill Mutz suggested the city post “signage near the public boat ramps” on Lake Parker to hunters the area “may be baited” as a discouragement to hunters.

“Well, they technically wouldn’t be able to hunt anywhere on the lake” if such signs were posted, Baird said, before noting, ”But it’s also a crime to throw out food to bait  — so is the mayor advocating people commit crimes? I’m assuming FWC would advise against that strongly.”

“The city, from my perspective, could put whatever signs they want out,” Thompson said, adding that that in addition to state laws against “baiting,” the United States Fish & Wildlife Services and Migratory Bird Treaty Act prohibits any person from using bait to draw or take migratory birds.

“If a hunter ignores the signs and hunts, I’m unsure how they would be able to know the area was baited or not,” he said. “Is the onus then on the hunter to inspect for ‘bait?’ Corn sprinkled in a yard 200 feet from a cattail patch wouldn’t seem to be enforceable. Corn placed in the cattail patch, in my non-legal trained mind, would – but wouldn’t that then fall under (state law), ‘intent to interfere with hunting?’”

Hunters have already conceded a great deal in Polk County, he said. “As much as I very much like the mayor, this isn’t one where you can divide the baby,” Thompson said. “It’s already been divided.”

There’s no public access on Lake Morton, so there’s no hunting allowed there. Hunters can no longer “access the pits at the east end of Lake Hancock” and the Circle B Reserve “world class” eight-day quota hunts were closed when “duck hunters were pushed out. We were supposed to get access to a filter marsh (in exchange), but that was denied,” he said.

He added: “One of the people who addressed the (city) commission said, ‘We shut down hunting on Circle B, why can’t we do it on Lake Parker?’”

That statement was, essentially, a declaration of war, Thompson said.

“We’ve had enough of compromise with nothing in return,” Thompson said. “I believe there is middle ground” without conceding anyone’s rights but “when you start at 212 degrees like they did, there’s no place to go.”

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