TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (NSF) - A Leon County circuit judge has ordered the state Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission to stop deer-dog hunters from going on private property within the borders of a state park in the Panhandle.
Judge Karen Gievers found that the state agency's continued permission of the hunt within the Blackwater Wildlife Management Area in Okaloosa County and Santa Rosa counties is a “nuisance” that has interfered with the property owner's right to enjoy their land.
The order doesn't call for a stop to such hunting, and it will be up to the state agency to determine how to keep the hunters from going onto private property.
Fish & Wildlife Commission officials did not have an immediate response Monday when askedÂ about Gievers's order, issued on Sept. 30.
The lawsuit was filed in November 2014 by retired U.S. Air Force pilot and National Rifle Association member William Daws, Jr., and his wife, Ouida Gershon, who sought to put an end to deer-dog hunting in the portion of the Blackwater area where they have lived since 2005. Twelve of their neighbors joined the suit earlier this year.
David Theriaque, a lawyer who represents the plaintiffs who live within the Blackwater area, said the order will provide relief to those property owners.
“All my folks have wanted for years was just to be able to use their property … without being subject to hunters and deer dogs shooting across their property,” Theriaque said.
Daws and Gershon claimed that, during the 44 days the state allows deer dog hunting, they have been threatened by hunters. Daws and Gershon alleged that their mailbox had been shot and derogatory graffiti was written in the road in front of their home. Dogs chasing deer can scare rescued horses on their property, the couple said.
Theriaque said he believes this is the first case in the country in which a court has ruled an agency must halt deer dog hunters from going on private property.
Deer-dog hunters use canines to trail deer through the woods. The dogs are unleashed when deer tracks are found or when hunters are within areas deer are known to frequent. The hunters typically follow in pickup trucks to where the dogs are expected to round up the deer for shooting.
Gievers found that "the plaintiff's rights to the quiet enjoyment of their property had been invaded and interfered with" by the deer-dog hunters during the 12.1 percent of the year when the hunting is allowed.
“For now, it is clear that the trespasses onto the plaintiffs' property and the interference with the plaintiffs' property rights is a direct result of the FWC's continued allowance of deer dog hunting in an area known to contain private property,” Gievers wrote in her 42-page order.
A hearing is set for Nov. 7 to determine if the court should proceed with a jury trial regarding damages. Daws and Gershon are asking for at least $15,000 in damages, claiming the state agency's issuance of permits to deer-dog hunters has deprived them of their constitutional rights as property owners.
According to the lawsuit, the couple sought changes to deer-dog hunting for four years as efforts to protect rescue animals they care for on the property resulted in being "harassed, bullied, and threatened by deer-dog hunters, including deer-dog hunters firing their guns over the heads of the Daws."
In 2005, the commission shrank the space allowed within the 200,000-acre Blackwater wildlife area for deer-dog hunting from 78,172 acres to 19,589 acres, while also closing a number of roads to the hunters.
Shortly before the lawsuit was filed in 2014, the state commission was advised by staff that closing more areas to hunting with dogs is possible, "however, interest in hunting with dogs remains extremely high."
The state agency had argued in part that the court would violate Florida's separation of powers law by issuing any order.
But Gievers disagreed, writing that the amended lawsuit did not seek to change FWC rules or regulations, “nor micromanage the deer hunting program.”
Information provided by The News Service of Florida.