BY Delores L. Walker, Free Press Reporter

Hunters that run dogs and those that support the sport came from at least ten Florida counties and the resounding conclusion at Friday's dog hunter meeting, held at the Lafayette High School gym, was, "keep the faith and don't give up the fight."

The faith, according to the several hundred attending the meeting, is the tradition of you and your friends enjoying the time-honored right to hunt using dogs.

The fight, reiterated by each speaker, is to keep the Florida Wildlife Commission (FWC) from taking that right (to hunt with dogs) away.

Local dog hunters as well as hundreds and possibly thousands across the state traveled to Tallahassee Wednesday, July 14, to "speak their piece" on the new ruling proposed by FWC.

The FWC is proposing to have dog owners be more accountable for their hunting dogs. According to the FWC, they have seen a deluge of complaints from property owners concerning hunting club members that allow their hunting dogs to stray onto their property. To solve the problem, the FWC plans to have hunters permit their dogs with identifying collars. If the dog is identified on private land, a complaint can be filed with law officers. According to the FWC proposal, if a hunter's dogs are identified as trespassers twice, the hunting club where the dog owner is a member will have their lease pulled for the next two years.

"Dog hunters feel the punishment is greater than the crime," said Martin Sewell from Calhoun County. Sewell spoke with great passion for the sport he has enjoyed most of his life, a sport that, in his eyes is being threatened by FWC who according to him doesn't really have the right. "This draft makes the FWC officer, the arresting officer, the judge, and the jury," Sewell said. "In our opinion, this draft is totally unreasonable, unacceptable, and unfair, and it will not hold up in a court of law," concluded Sewell.

The five local hunting clubs have the support of commissioners who adopted a resolution several weeks ago upholding the dog owner's right to use hunting dogs in the county.

Lafayette County resident Jeff Walker said after talking to hunters across the state and with the FWC's meeting coming up he coordinated the meeting along with Ed and Wes Carter (dog hunters association), Brent Douglas, Rusty McKeithen, and Al Hammond III (Florida Field Representative National Rifle Association) to give local hunters a better understanding of the issue at hand.

Walker extended a warm welcome to everyone attending the meeting before several guest speakers shared relevant information with an attentive crowd.

Al Hammond said the meetings that have been held across the state are a "call to action." He said Florida and Mississippi are the only two states that allow free running dogs. He said, "we recognize the property owners right to protect their property, but at the same time we must protect our southern tradition that includes hunting with dogs."

The consensus from each speaker was to make the individual directly responsible for what their dogs do and where they are allowed to go....."but it's wrong to punish the entire club membership for one bad apple's poor judgment," Hammond said.

Hunting club members have retained the services of attorney Dan Stengle of the law firm of Hopping Green Sams in Tallahassee to represent dog hunters at the Commission meeting July 14.

Hunters said their goal is to get the penalties for violators changed to an individual basis so that the person who violates the rule is the one who is penalized, and not the entire club, possibly by strengthening the hunter responsibility rule.

Look for a follow-up story on the decision made by FWC in an upcoming edition of the Mayo Free Press.

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