The controversial hunt to kill Everglades deer was halted today when game management officials agreed to stop the shooting and animal rights workers dropped rescue efforts.
Both sides claimed victory after the mid-morning announcement that the "mercy kill" would end after two days at 6 p.m. Some disgruntled hunters, who had invested as much as $1,400 and taken time off from work, blamed the decision on "politics."
In all, hunters killed 730 deer and rescuers had saved 20.
The Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission hastily called the out-of-season hunt to thin out what it claims is a herd of 6,000 deer which are starving because of unusually high water in the Everglades marshes.
Some animal rights workers had contended the deer should be caught and transported to areas where food and shelter are plentiful. But the game commission ruled that out because of "intolerable levels of shock and stress" it said the deer would suffer.
"We've tried it and failed," said Biff Lampton, a commission spokesman. "Almost as soon as we catch them, they die. To catch one is akin to a werewolf jumping out of the dark and scaring you."
But rescue workers say they proved their point by rescuing the 20 deer and keeping them alive. They conceded, however, that their efforts were disorganized and amateurish, but claimed they had to do what they could without any preparation.
In contrast to more than 800 airboats registered to hunters, about two dozen would-be rescuers waded around today as a shortage of equipment and frequent negotiations interrupted their mission. Volunteers were offering hunters $50 a deer plus reimbursement for the expensive airplane fuel that powers their boats if they would join the rescue.
A few hundred who volunteered after bagging their deer left in frustration from the disorganized rescue site.
"It was a pointless hunt," said Cleveland Amory, president of the New York-based Fund for Animals which tried to block the hunt in court. "The deer are not starving. It's a water problem."
Game officials say the deer are overcrowded on limited dry areas and some have already died from stress, malnutrition and parasites. Col. Robert M. Brantly, executive director of the game commission, said 70 dead deer were found in June. By reducing the herd, the survivors will have a better chance to deal with the shortage of food and dry land, the commission claimed.
Hunters and rescue workers, however, said today they found no dead deer and strongly doubted the commission's estimate of the herd's size.
The deer are the latest victims of Florida's unpredictable flood and drought cycle which for the past two years dried up the same Everglades marshes that now are under about 25 inches of water.
Heavy storms in June, normally a wet month, flooded the area with 14 1/2 inches of rainwater, or 152 percent above normal. The problem was heightened by high water removed from flooded upland communities and sugar cane fields.
The affected 500 square miles in the Everglades marshes are conservation areas set aside by the South Florida Water Management District to hold water for coastal communities during the dry winter.
"We're doing everything possible to release water from the area," said Margaret Winsura, a press aide for the water agency. She said all the gates to the sea in the region's canal system are open but the water, which flows by gravity, is not moving across the saturated land.
"The area is going to stay wet through the summer and there is nothing more we can do."