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Hogs run wild: Feral pig catching in the plan at county-acquired Pepper Ranch

By Kaydee Tuff |

There’s plenty of pork at Pepper Ranch, but none of it will be going to feed Collier County’s growing population of hungry this year.

Beginning in January, Collier Conservation officials will pay the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) $16,000 a year to catch, kill and dispose of hundreds of wild hogs on the 2,500-acre property the county purchased for $32.6 million in February.

According to environmental specialist Christal Segura, the hogs, classified as “trespassing livestock,” are growing rapidly in number and have caused extensive environmental damage since the county purchased the ranch.

“We’ve seen groups of 30 on the ranch, just going to town out there,” she said. “In one week, they can tear up a 10-acre pasture, destroying not only native vegetation but everything on the ground including snakes and bird eggs, especially turkey eggs.”

Nationwide, the wild pig population is exploding across the country, according to national expert Jack Mayer.

In the past 20 years, population estimates have doubled nationwide to between 2 million and 6 million. In Florida, the numbers are estimated between 300,000 and a million in all 67 counties.

Segura has no estimate of the hog population at Pepper Ranch, but said county staff will have a better idea after the USDA trapping begins. She said the county’s contract will cover the cost of trapping about 200 pigs.

Prior to the county’s purchase, Pepper Ranch’s hog population was managed with private hunting.

Segura said the County Attorney’s Office recommended the use of USDA trappers to avoid liability issues associated with hunting and private trapping until the county implements a hunting program, perhaps as soon as November 2010.

Conservation Collier tried to find a way to utilize the hog meat, Segura said.

“We made a huge effort to attempt to donate the hogs to food banks in Immokalee and elsewhere but no one could accept them because they carry several types of diseases and they have no way to store them or prepare them,” she said.

Gary Morse, spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, estimates that 50 percent to 75 percent of the wild hog population is infected with brucellosis, a blood-borne disease that can be transmitted to humans through the blood.

He said the disease only affects the blood, not the meat of the animal, which is safe once it is processed and cooked.

“It’s absolutely delicious,” he said of the meat. “There’s good reason why people hunt hogs.”

Morse said people can contract brucellosis through cuts in their hands during the butchering process. He advises wearing gloves when handling wild hog carcasses and making sure not to spill blood on clothing.

According to Morse, there is no hunting season for wild hogs in Florida because they are considered livestock, not wildlife. Hog hunting can be done at any time of the year on private property, but on public land, hunters must comply with hunting regulations.

Some Florida wildlife management areas have eliminated hog hunting from their activities because dogs chasing pigs disrupt other activities such as quail hunting.

The issue of hog hunting isn’t without controversy, according to Morse. While the animals pose a considerable threat to the environment, they are also the primary food source for the endangered Florida panther.

Segura said that will not be an issue at Pepper Ranch.

“Right now our main concern is to get them down to manageable levels,” she said of the hog population. “We will never be able to catch them all so there will be plenty left for the panthers and the hunters.”

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