PERICO PRESERVE – It’s a cool, sunny, Thanksgiving weekend day and you’re walking along the path at Perico Preserve looking at the butterflies and being thankful that there’s no red tide in the preserve when a shot rings out.
Four pelicans flush from the mangroves.
Two white egrets fly away from the sound.
Two more shots – then silence.
A few moments later, doors slam on a dark pickup truck parked on Perico Isle Circle, just outside the preserve boundary, the engine starts, the tires squeal, and it’s gone.
What is happening at the preserve, created by Manatee County as a bird sanctuary?
According to county environmental officials, state wildlife officials, and neighbors of the preserve, duck hunting season is happening.
The season closed the last day of the Thanksgiving weekend, Nov. 25, and reopens again on Saturday, Dec. 8, ending Sunday, Jan. 27.
“The last thing people are thinking is, ‘Maybe I should wear an orange vest on the boardwalk.’ ” – Charlie Hunsicker
It’s a constant frustration to county environmental officials, who have no law enforcement powers, said Charlie Hunsicker, director of the Manatee County Parks and Natural Resources Department.
For seven months out of the year, between August and February, it is legal to hunt 28 bird species in Florida, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC); each species has specific dates designating its season.
The juxtaposition of a densely populated neighborhood, a preserve that was built with birds in mind, and hunters shooting at the birds is worrisome at best, and tragic at worst, Hunsicker said.
“I am surprised we still allow hunting against residential neighborhoods in the name of sport where a catastrophic convergence of families and their pets meets up with people who appear in camouflage,” he said.
The county does not oppose hunting outright, Hunsicker said.
“We’re supportive of a well-managed hunting program like the one at Duette Preserve,” he said. The preserve is in east Manatee County, which is more sparsely populated than Perico Island, and offers hunting for deer, turkey, hog, quail and other species.
However, he said, “It’s contradictory that as long as you’re standing in state submerged land, you can hunt wherever you want. I hope there will never be an incident as a result.”
“Diametrically opposed activities can only be resolved in tragedy if both sides are not careful,” Hunsicker said. “The last thing people are thinking is, ‘Maybe I should wear an orange vest on the boardwalk.’ ”
Is it legal?
During Thanksgiving week, Elsbeth Frischmann heard the guns a couple of times a day, morning and evening, for four or five days in her home at Perico Island Condos, which overlooks Perico Bayou, between Perico Preserve and Robinson Preserve.
“They were so close, the birds flew away,” including brown ducks and mallards, she said.
If there is no ordinance against discharging a weapon within a certain distance of residences, or within city or county limits, game officers can’t prohibit it, FWC Officer Timothy Hinds said.
If duck hunters are properly licensed and trained, if they use the right weapon, if they wade, kayak or boat into Perico Bayou, which is state-owned submerged land, if they target birds on the wing that are in season, and if they use the proper ammunition, they are within the law, he said.
“That’s legal for them to do as long as they’re not shooting towards houses or over houses or at power lines,” he said.
The proper weapon and ammunition for duck hunting is shotguns and birdshot, which does not travel as far as bullets, he said, but still falls, potentially on people.
“It would be very troubling to have bird shot raining down on their head,” he said. “It’s got to be done in a safe manner. It’s a populated area.”
Whether a bird can be targeted or not is all about boundaries, Hinds said.
“The birds are either in the preserve or not,” he said.
Birds that can be hunted in Florida during specified seasons
Ducks (mallard, scoter, eider, long-tailed, wood, redhead, black, scaup, canvasback, pintail, mottled and fulvous whistling duck)
Rail (king, clapper, sora and Virginia)
Source: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
Hunters are not allowed to shoot into the preserve, but if their birds fall on the preserve they can retrieve them, Hinds said.
Hunters do come into the preserve to retrieve their prey, Hunsicker said; people find carcasses left behind after the breast meat has been carved out.
Is it fair to target birds living in a bird sanctuary when they fly outside its boundaries?
“Some of the best hunting land is near designated wildlife refuges because the populations are healthy there,” Hinds said.
For the birds
Perico Preserve opened on May 14, 2016 – International Migratory Bird Day – highlighting its purpose as a rookery.
The 176-acre Manatee County preserve touts its bird sanctuary status in signage, prohibiting dogs, which are bird predators, and prohibiting bicycles in a portion of the preserve where bird nesting is encouraged. The county also built an island in a lake in the preserve with poles for osprey to nest in.
“We have a preserve that we’ve worked very hard to establish, and a bird sanctuary should not be available to anyone shooting guns, whether they’re near or on the property, because that is near the nesting we’re working hard to protect,” said Sandra Ripberger, of the Sierra Club Manatee-Sarasota Group, suggesting that a citizens watch group could be formed to monitor hunting.
Bradenton Beach-based Wildlife Education and Rehabilitation Inc. releases rehabilitated birds at Perico Preserve, Gail Straight said.
“I’m not totally opposed to people hunting, as long as they’re eating what they’re hunting. My big problem is you’ve got people all over the place and kids playing and condos; one stray bullet could go through windows and cars,” she said. “There’s a million places you can go hunting for ducks.”
“It’s pretty dangerous to invite people into a preserve to walk and hike and observe wildlife and plant life and fire a firearm,” said Merrie Lynn Parker, with the Manatee Fish and Game Association.
The Sarasota Bay Estuary Program has spent $8,000 to coordinate volunteer native planting events at Perico Preserve, said Darcy Young, director of planning and communications.
The Tampa Bay Estuary Program (TBEP) is funding exotic plant control on a parcel of land that will connect Perico Preserve with Robinson Preserve, spokeswoman Maya Burke said.
When TBEP was rewriting its comprehensive management plan in 2016-17, they included the issue of hunting near preserves, which was starting to happen in Hillsborough County.
“One of the strategies was the need to better understand and address it,” she said.
“At restoration projects, hunters use these areas, and hikers find it disconcerting,” Burke said. “Local governments are ill equipped to address these user conflicts. The region needs to work on this issue.”
No active initiatives exist to connect local law enforcement, FWC and preserve managers, she said.
Whose job is it?
The FWC’s law enforcement officers focus on game violations, Hinds said, and if there are any other legal issues, other law enforcement agencies have jurisdiction.
It’s not easy to know who to call to report gunshots near a preserve.
“It might take something tragic or a massive public outcry to prompt the Legislature to act.” – Michael Elswick, manager of the Manatee County Parks and Recreation Department
Frischmann contacted Damon Moore, with the county parks department, who looked into the issue.
He found that hunters are allowed to carry their guns into the preserve and even clean them on the picnic tables, as long as they don’t shoot within the preserve, where hunting is prohibited, Moore said.
The state has prohibited local governments from regulating firearms, so the county can’t say “no guns in the preserve,” said Michael Elswick, manager of Manatee County’s Parks and Natural Resources Department, adding that hunters have been observed in boats against the mangrove tree line firing over the water in Perico Bayou.
“We can prohibit hunting in the preserve, but not the carrying of firearms,” he said. “We’re waiting for someone to shoot onto private property” or be caught hunting in the preserve to call law enforcement.
Parts of Perico Island fall under the Bradenton Police Department’s (BPD) jurisdiction and other parts fall under the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO), including Frischmann’s neighborhood. Her homeowners association has a video camera at the entrance of the condos that might have captured a license plate number of hunters parking in the neighborhood, but there have been no complaints filed, according to the office.
“If they’re discharging a firearm in a neighborhood, call 911, suggested BPD Capt. Brian Thiers. “They can tell whether you are in the city or county.”
The City of Bradenton has an ordinance against discharging a firearm within city limits, referring to Florida Statute 790.15, he said, adding that BPD enforces that law.
If the agency gets a call on gunshots fired within the city limits near the preserve, they would respond, and also call FWC, he said.
“We rely on people to let us know,” MCSO Public Information Officer Randy Warren said. “Call us. Get a description of the vehicle. We can start a paper trail. We will put patrols out to look at it. Never hesitate to call law enforcement if something is of concern,” he said.
Law enforcement needs to make sure shooters are not doing something other than hunting, he said.
That prospect disturbs Hunsicker.
“How can you tell if it’s a shotgun or rifle? This bothers me to no end, knowing that most pistol or rifle rounds would carry a lethal trajectory into the surrounding homes of Perico and as far away as Flamingo Cay and traffic on State Road 64,” he said.
Regulations for an urban preserve like Perico should be different than for uninhabited or sparsely populated areas, Elswick said.
“You’re regulating the Ten Thousand Islands the same way you’re regulating a highly visited preserve,” he said, noting that hunting is a highly-charged issue with the gun rights lobby.
“It might take something tragic or a massive public outcry to prompt the Legislature to act.”