TAMPA — The plan to control populations of feral hogs in publicly owned preserves is evolving into something wildlife biologists hope will better curb the porcine rampage that can leave sensitive hammocks and wetlands looking like bulldozer trails.
Some wildlife preserves overseen by the Southwest Florida Water Management District have become overrun with wild hogs, including the Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Preserve that straddles Morris Bridge Road east of New Tampa. Night-time hog hunts are scheduled in the tract a couple times a year. The hunters use dogs to track down hogs at night, a hunting method considered the most effective way to reduce the number of hogs roaming the tracts.
Under a new plan, the most successful hunters will be rewarded with free permits for subsequent hunts and a chance to hunt later in the year on an as-needed basis. The hunts take place on nearly a dozen district-owned tracts of land this year and in 2014.
Hunts are strictly supervised and closely watched.
“The major advantage to night-time hunts is that the hunts occur in regional parks, which means during the daytime the parks can maintain their normal operations from sunrise to sunset,” said district spokeswoman Susanna Martinez Tarokh. “There are also advantages to night hunts for the hunters: Hunters tell us the dogs last longer in cooler weather, and some hunters say it's easier to follow a scent trail. The hogs also tend to be more active at night.”
More than 400 permits will be issued to eligible hunters during the season.
Feral pigs are not indigenous to Florida, though they count themselves among the first Europeans to set foot, or hoof, in the Sunshine State when Hernando de Soto brought some over five centuries ago. Since then, the hogs have flourished in the wilds, and some argue feral pigs now have as much right to be here as Key deer and Florida panthers.
But wild pigs tend to multiply rapidly, and they can be destructive to the environment, rooting up acre upon acre of pristine woods as they search for acorns and other food.
According to district officials, wild hogs are responsible for more than just damaging vegetation. They are creating problems for some of the flood control structures, which is why the plan to control the populaiton is becoming more aggressive.
Last year, the district spent $10,400 to repair feral hog-related damage to a levee in the Lower Hillsborough Reserve and $7,300 to repair levees in the district's Lake Hancock preserve in Polk County.
“Conservation lands have traditionally been the focus of district feral hog control activities and these properties continue to incur considerable damage to natural communities and their associated ecological services,” said a district staff report presented to the governing board this week.
Permits for the hunts are a popular commodity.
The district is in the first phase of the three-phase plan for 2013 and 2014, and all 22 available permits for the Lower Hillsborough Preserve hunt were scooped up within seven minutes of them becoming available. The first hunt in Hillsborough County is scheduled for January, the second in February.
Registration for the second phase begins at 9 a.m. on Feb. 13.
The third phase is kind of a perk for the most productive hunters in the first two phases. Those who take the most hogs will be on a list of hunters to be called on an as-needed basis to hunt down problem hogs. They can hunt pigs without having to pay for a permit.