Video by: Valerie Lyons
Silver Springs Forest Conservation Area is set once again to allow hunting for small game such as squirrel, raccoon and bobwhite quail this fall. But some who enjoy horseback riding in the area question the safety of themselves and their horses if riding and hunting are to coexist.
At a February 12 meeting, the district’s governing board discussed an amendment to allow for public small-game hunting in the conservation area. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection, U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Legacy Program and the Conservation Trust for Florida jointly purchased the 4,900 acres in 2015.
The Silver Springs Forest Conservation Area was closed to hunting in 2015 after the purchase of the land from Rayonier Inc., a timber company.
Jeremy Olson, the St. Johns River Water Management District land manager, said re-opening the area to hunting was always the plan, but the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) wanted to survey the land and make sure the animal populations could support hunting before making any decisions. They plan to reintroduce hunting to the forest in October 2019 and run it through March 2020.
“FWC works really hard to monitor populations of game animals, and so they do spotlight counts for deer, they survey for turkey, and so they’ve got to pull from the population,” Olson said.
Olson said if FWC notices something with the wildlife populations that isn’t quite right, such as an imbalance in the ecosystem (over- or under-population) they will adapt their regulations to compensate that imbalance. FWC constantly updates its regulations based on local populations, which are monitored to ensure that hunting doesn’t negatively impact the numbers.
Feral pigs could fall under the category of small game because they have become a nuisance in the area, he said.
“They’re an invasive, exotic species,” Olson said. “They do a lot of damage that actually affects water quality in Half Mile Creek and other tributaries that flow to the Ocklawaha River.”
Denise Raymond, one of the many people who enjoy the area for recreational activities such as horseback riding, said the feral pigs are a problem.
“To be honest, I’m really not totally opposed to them hunting the wild pigs in there,” said Raymond, 52. “As riders, we’ve all seen the pigs there, and we’ve also seen evidence of the wild pigs there and in a lot of the other areas of forest around here.”
Raymond has been riding trails in the Silver Springs Conservation area with friends for about three years now, and she questions whether hunters and horseback riders can coexist.
“I see it as an issue if, for example, we’re out riding at a time when there’s also hunting going on,” Raymond said. “As you can imagine, even the best of our horses could be startled by sudden gunfire, and it would be quite easy to get dumped or have a bad accident as a result of something like that.”
Raymond said equestrians usually try to avoid areas that are known for hunting. She said it would be a shame to lose that area because Ocala, while very welcoming to the horse industry, calls for a lot of coexistence on the trails already. Raymond also worries about the decrease in wildlife because she enjoys seeing animals such as rabbits on the trail.
Diane Pahl, 66, is completely against allowing hunting in the conservation area, although she has ridden there only once. She said she is mostly concerned about getting shot or being hurt as a result of a spooked horse. Many years ago, she said, she rode in the Doe Lake area of the Ocala National Forest on a day that allowed hunting. While she stayed close to the campsite, she said she didn’t enjoy the day because she was afraid to go far and left early instead.
Olson and Workman are confident that there will be no safety issues once all 4,900 acres are open to small-game hunting. Between the courses hunters are required to take, FWC’s rules and regulations and on-duty officers taking shifts to patrol the area, they said, there’s no reason to expect negative outcomes.
Additional measures will be taken, but official plans for these steps are still in the works. Workman said that anyone who encounters trouble should call FWC’s emergency hotline number and the dispatch center will respond immediately.
“I don’t foresee any issues or problems with this area, just like I don’t see any other of the hundreds (of areas) that we have throughout the state of Florida that currently have the same activities,” Workman said.
Workman said hunters would not want to be near trails where people are engaged in recreational activities such as hiking, biking and or riding horses because the noise would frighten game animals. Hunters, therefore, would want to be as far away as possible, deeper in the forest.
Allowing small-game hunting could pave the way for making the conservation land a wildlife management area. This would allow hunting for big-game such as turkey and deer, FWC spokesman Greg Workman said.
“As it is now, we have it listed as a small-game hunt area, and we’re hoping in the very near future — and it looks like it’s going to be going through, not this year, maybe next year — but it’s going to be a full-blown wild management area,” Workman said. “But what that will entail is just even more opportunities.”
Hunters like Dustin Magamoll, 38, are looking forward to using the land again. Magamoll said the land’s previous owner, Rayonier Inc., would lease out land to hunters, but hunting in the area came to a halt in 2015 to give FWC time to survey the property.
Magamoll, who has been hunting since he was about 8 years old, now brings along his 11-year-old daughter, Brydie. She has been accompanying him on hunting trips for about five or six years and recently started hunting this past year.
Magamoll believes hunting with responsible adults will teach his daughter and other children proper firearm safety and how to be good stewards of the land.
“I also like the challenge of it,” Brydie said. “Because you don’t always get an animal, and you have to keep working hard.”
People who don’t hunt often misunderstand what the sport is about, he said.
“It’s not a ‘killing a lot of animals’ thing,” Magamoll said. “It’s taking what you need, what you can eat.”