Florida’s feral hogs: a pervasive pest – but a profitable one for some

The Guardian
by Jordan Blumetti –

Florida’s feral hogs: a pervasive pest – but a profitable one for some
The US’s most destructive invasive species numbers in the millions, clashing with a growing human population and boosting a lucrative hunting industry –

Dimas “Pompi” Rodriguez is standing in his front yard before dawn, his neck shielded from a bitter wind by the collar of his canvas jacket. He splits a cigarillo lengthwise and empties the guts on to his filthy swamp boots.

“We gonna catch some hogs today,” he says. “When it’s cold, they come out of the swamp.”

He rolls a joint with the cigarillo shell on the door of his mailbox and grins at the finished product. A tallish, broad-shouldered guy, Pompi hunts wild hogs for a living, which are known in Florida as a kind of quotidian foe. “We hunt every day – morning, night, it doesn’t matter,” he says.

Driving through a wooded retirement burg 30 miles south of Orlando, he makes a sharp turn off-road on to a dirt trail, and parks on a small mound in view of a cypress dome. He points out a series of depressions in the earth. “Those are hog wallows,” he says. “Look at how big they are.” The troughs are about the size of bathtubs with a cloud of flies hovering above, indicating they’re fresh, from the last couple of hours.

Pompi, 26, unlatches the tailgate and opens the crates bolted to his truck bed, releasing four hunting dogs that run hell-for-leather into the marsh, disappearing behind a low curtain of palmetto trees. Barking erupts in a warped echo. “That’s our hog,” he says. “Bubba jumped him.”

Taz, Sonny and Honey are specifically trained to chase and then bay, or howl, at the hog, keeping it cornered until the catch dog – Bubba, a fearsome American bull – charges in to deliver one crushing bite, pinning the hog by the ear. Pompi flips it by the hindquarters, hogties it and slings it across his shoulders. It can be grisly to witness, and dogs occasionally suffer lethal injuries in the process. “But it’s the best way to get the hog out alive,” Pompi says.

Upwards of 9 million wild boar roam 39 states across the US, which is up from an estimated 2 million in 17 states three decades ago. Florida hosts more than half a million – the second largest population of hogs in the country behind Texas, but also the oldest bloodline. The first pigs to arrive in America were brought by the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto, who landed near present-day Tampa in 1539. They promptly escaped, establishing a critical mass of the now-ubiquitous vermin.

Today, wild hogs are considered the most destructive invasive species in the country, and the greatest wildlife challenge that the US faces in the 21st century. According to US Department of Agriculture estimates, they cause north of $2.5bn in damage each year. With gnarled tusks and bodies that can swell to the size of oak bourbon barrels, they trash watersheds, destroy crops, attack livestock, spread disease, terrorize residents and desecrate archeological sites; they are aggressive, whip-smart, lightning-fast and dine opportunistically on oak berries, trash, corn, carrion and each other. A passel of hogs can take out a commercial watermelon or tomato farm overnight, leaving the fields resembling a blast site from a hail of mortar shells.

Florida’s plight is especially severe because the state’s current housing boom, spurred by the pandemic, is rapidly turning the once rural stretches between Tampa and Orlando into a single conurbation. The same goes for the creeping inland sprawl in the rest of the state: wetlands, pine forests and vestigial orange groves that were recently hog habitats have become densely populated housing developments, strings of red-roofed tract homes and retirement communities. The majority of Florida’s new exurban residents, seniors in particular, are living closer to hogs than ever before.

“The new houses go up, and the hogs leave for a while, but they always come back,” Pompi says. He mentions the communes for adults over 55 in central Florida like The Villages, the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the US from 2010-2017, and its smaller counterpart, Solivita, a planned community inhabited by 6,000 baby boomers – Xanadu for the “active adult”.

“We’re on the edge of a land preserve,” says Madalyn Colon, director of safety and security for Solivita. “And the hogs are constantly destroying the fencing that separates Solivita from the wilderness.” As head of security, one of her chief responsibilities is contacting trappers like Pompi to remove hogs.

“I get calls from residents in the morning. The hogs mutilate the landscape, tear up all the nice St Augustine grass, and trash their yards,” she says. “It happens almost every day.”

Hostile encounters with people are not uncommon. Colon recalls the story of a new resident who was confronted and chased by a pregnant sow. “It’s the newer residents who aren’t hip to how bad it is over here.”

The hog issue is not thought of as a solvable problem, but one that could only be attenuated. Although trapping – after which they are sterilized, killed, sold for hunting or released elsewhere – is the most common form of hog mitigation, the traps themselves are often ineffectual. The creatures are smart enough to eat every kernel of corn inside a box trap except the one that trips the trigger.

For over three centuries, hogs were mostly confined to the south-east, in relatively manageable numbers, but biologists have watched them increase by 20% annually over the last decade and their range double since 1980. In 2017, the Environmental Protection Agency approved the use of a poison bait – the single most promising development for managing the ecological crisis to date – but a series of lawsuits from hog hunting and rifle groups, and the potential for the toxicant to be spread throughout the ecosystem, has led to it being taken off the market.

As such, the bulk of the mitigation crusade continues to rest unevenly on the shoulders of hunters. The intractable growth of hog populations has been used to justify a year-round open season with no kill limits in Florida, as well as several other states in the south-east, contributing in large measure to Florida’s billion-dollar hunting industry.

Tree-stand hunts are as cheap as $100 per person, allowing both marksmen and dilettantes to kill pigs until they run out of ammunition. There are several companies in Texas charging tourists thousands of dollars to shoot at sounders – hog herds – with machine guns while leaning out of a helicopter. In Florida, anyone can start an ad-hoc hunting club – all you need is some forested land, barbed-wire fencing and a $50 game farm license. These eradication methods are encouraged and subsidized by the USDA and state governments. But the ethics, and whether or not the commercial appeal of hog hunting is contributing to the problem, are rarely considered.

A shot rings out across a private, 2,000-acre ranch near Arcadia, Florida. A dozen head of cattle turn their long faces towards the shooter, Corey Woosley. One hundred yards away is the boar, on its back, four hooves quivering towards the sky before going stiff and falling leeward.

Woosley helps with the upkeep of the property here, which is only open for hunting to friends and family of the owner. Two years ago, he defected from a much larger ranch in the area, where he worked as a hunting guide, after feeling alienated by a pervading cavalier attitude towards killing. He describes it as a general disregard for life – pig lives in particular.

Commercial hunting ranches in Florida are open to residents and tourists year-round, and can cost over $100,000 annual memberships, or $5,000 a hunt in some instances. Alligator, waterfowl, deer, bison and boar are among the primary targets.

“It’s great that they’ve made an industry out of hunting hogs,” he says “And I don’t judge people who shoot 50 at a time. I guess my part to play is just different than theirs.” He no longer hunts hogs for sport, or for money, but he still has a duty to target them on the ranch occasionally, for the purposes of land and wildlife conservation.

“That’s probably the biggest one I’ve ever shot,” he says approaching the body. It has a prominent European coloration, jagged tusks arcing out of its jaw, and the rigid shield-like shoulders that all mature males develop. He leans down to examine the entry wound, a small red bubble underneath the ear.

“It’s always hard to know if I made the right decision,” he says. “But at the same time I know that everyone else will be happy that he’s gone.”

The rub is that the hunting industry is at least partially responsible for the recent explosion of hog populations in America. In the second half of the 20th century, ranchers realized their value as game and began introducing Eurasian wild boar on private and public ranches across the south-east for the delectation of hunters. The hogs escaped, as is their wont, or were simply released, and bred with existing feral and domestic populations. They have since become the second-most popular game in the country behind white-tail deer.

“The hog thing is complicated,” Woosley says. “The population needs to be controlled, and we shouldn’t kill indiscriminately, but at the same time we’re all addicted to farmed foods and don’t want to eat wild game.”

The sun washes through the pasture as he drives an off-road buggy to the site of another kill from earlier in the morning – turkey buzzards have started to peck at the gut. “I’m just trying to get to a place where I’m only killing when I can use the meat,” he says.

The butchering takes about 20 minutes, and he comes away with two hams and two lean tenderloins that run the length of the backbone. “There,” he says, placing the hams in a black trash bag. “That should last a couple weeks.”

“I’ve probably trapped close to 10,000 hogs,” Pompi shouts from underneath the hood of his truck. He’s changing a spark plug at his neighborhood mechanic shop. “They’ll call me and say they need 20 hogs in two days, and I run all over the state to catch them,” he says, referring to the buyers who purchase hogs to stock their hunting ranches.

“I’m an outlaw.” Pompi means he’s a poacher, which is a grave offense in Florida – unless you are poaching hogs. He says most landowners and law enforcement turn a blind eye. It’s considered a public service.

Over the last decade he’s seen the popularity of hog hunting on private ranches explode. But that also meant hogs were being killed in such large quantities that their ranks were noticeably diminished, and the ones that remained were smart enough to move on to safer territory. That merging of population control and commerce has engineered perverse incentives – the mercenary killing of hogs is based on the misapprehension that hunting ranches are always teeming with them. The most important thing becomes keeping up that appearance, not necessarily ecological rehabilitation.

The upshot is that most ranches now have to import hogs from other regions to keep up with the demand. Pompi cobbles together a modest income as a trapper by selling his catches directly to large hunting outfits across the state, or to middlemen who inserted themselves in the supply chain.

Throughout the day at the shop, a procession of errant youth – hunting buddies and hangers-on – come and go, looking to glean some of Pompi’s ingenuity and charm. All of them tinkering with their trucks or some other mundane task related to trapping.

“We fix everything ourselves around here,” Pompi says. “Gotta keep the trucks running good so we can be out hunting every night.”

Every pickup truck is fitted with a dog box, every person can’t wait to show off his bank of smug trophy photos, or the hoof tracks tattooed on his arm, or talk about how personal circumstances have forced him to make a living in uncustomary, sometimes extralegal ways.

A black truck pulls into the shop. One of Pompi’s friends, Delvin, a doughy guy with red cheeks and khaki shorts sagging at his rear, climbs down from the cab. He has a live sow in his truck bed that he caught earlier in the day and plans to sell to Pompi’s rancher contacts. He runs his hand along the metal crate. It takes a sneering chomp out of the air. “Mean son of a bitch,” Delvin says.

A small crowd gathers around the truck, and, Pompi opens the tailgate without a second thought and yanks it out by the legs so everyone can get a look. The sound a wild boar makes when angry is horrifying – a low, resonant grunt mixed with piercing squeals. The hog bucks its hind legs and Pompi is forced to move with it. The two dance a little jig around the parking lot until he finds some purchase and flips the hog on to its back, pinning it with a knee. The crowd is pleased. The beast lets out one last resigned squeal, and then closes its mouth.

DLNR seeks art contest entries for the 2020-21 hunting stamp

The Maui News

A state agency is seeking art entries depicting game mammals and game birds for the 2021-22 hunting stamp.

The state Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Forestry and Wildlife is holding the contest to choose the artwork for wildlife conservation stamps, a requirement on Hawaii state hunting licenses, and game bird stamps, which are required for hunting game birds. Both stamps will be available to collectors.

Subjects for the stamps are the Kalij pheasant, which is found on Hawaii island and Oahu, and the mouflon/feral hybrid sheep found on Lanai, Hawaii island and the game ranches of Maui. Setting for the subjects should be a Hawaii habitat.

The size of the artwork should be a completed painting with a maximum of 24 inches by 36 inches and unframed. It will be reduced to a 1-by-1.5-inch stamp. The medium should be oil or acrylic.

To enter, submit the completed oil or acrylic panting or an 8.5-by-11-inch photo, print or photocopy of the completed painting.

All entries must be received by Feb. 5. Winners will be notified Feb. 20 and will receive a maximum award of $1,000.

All paintings must be accompanied by a $35 fee to cover the return cost of the artwork.

If a check is not included, artists will need to pick up their work. Checks should be made payable to the DLNR.

Copies of the announcement and the application form are available upon request from the Division of Forestry and Wildlife, 1151 Punchbowl St., Room 325, Honolulu, 96813.

For more information, email Jason.D.Omick@hawaii .gov or call (808) 347-6869.

State gets $1.8M grant to boost Molokai forest protection

Maui News

Funding will help with fencing and removal of hooved animals as well as creating firebreaks

Forests on the southern slopes of Molokai are about to receive additional protections from threats like wildfires, erosion and flooding thanks to a $1.8 million award from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources announced Friday.

The funding will go toward proven tools such as fencing and removal of hooved animals, as well as creating firebreaks, which will lead to clearer ocean waters, vibrant reefs, restored plants and trees and fewer disruptions along the island’s main road that stretches from Kaunakakai to the east end, DLNR said.

“We are excited to support DLNR’s work to restore native forests, which will help to reduce risks of flooding, landslides and fire to communities on Molokai and will lead to healthier habitat for native species,” Erika Feller, director of Coastal and Marine Conservation for the foundation, said in a news release.

State Sen. J. Kalani English, who represents East Maui, Molokai and Lanai, said that watershed capital improvement project funds authorized by the state provided most of the match needed to apply for the grant. The larger Watershed Initiative is directing an additional $2 million of state CIP and operating funds to protect Molokai’s forests and employ Molokai residents.

“I’m delighted that this state funding has been able to attract more federal and private funding that will create more jobs on Molokai while helping preserve our forests and reefs,” said state Rep. Lynn DeCoite, who also represents East Maui, Molokai and Lanai.

Some federal and foundation funds are available only when a matching investment can be demonstrated, the news release explained. Since 2013, State Watershed Initiative funds have brought in more than $36 million in federal, county and private funds for forest protection projects statewide.

Molokai’s remaining native forests play a crucial role in the island’s ecosystem by holding soil and absorbing rainwater. Funding helps state agencies and nonprofits to continue to protect the forests and restore areas converted to bare dirt by wildfires and hooved animals. The East Moloka’i Watershed Partnership, led by The Nature Conservancy, involves DLNR and other agencies, landowners and community organizations working to develop a landscape-level management plan to address problems across the south slope, where dirt washes down to the ocean and clogs fishponds, kills corals that need sunlight to grow and feeds invasive algae that smothers the reef.

“The ‘olelo no’eau (Hawaiian proverb) ‘Ina e lepo ke kumu wai, e ho’ea ana ka lepo ikai’ means ‘If the source of the water is dirty, muddy water will travel to the sea,’ “ said Ulalia Woodside, director of The Nature Conservancy, Hawai’i chapter. “By restoring forests, we counter that possibility and provide jobs that allow the people of Molokai to give back to the nature that sustains them.”

County officials also expressed support for funding and emphasized the importance of protecting the island’s forests.

“Each budget session, our Maui County Council allocates significantly to forest watershed protection efforts countywide, and being from Molokai, where subsistence is our way of life, funding resource management is highly prioritized,” said Council Vice-Chairwoman Keani Rawlins-Fernandez, who also serves as the Economic Development and Budget Committee chair.”

Stacy Crivello, Molokai community liaison for Mayor Michael Victorino, added that “Molokai depends on our natural resources to sustain our lifestyle.

“Protecting our watershed and restoring our forests protect our reefs,” Crivello said. “Taking care of mauka takes care of makai.”

Turkey hunting takes couple on a wild ride

Star Herald
by Danielle Prokop –

GURLEY — Everybody’s got a thing. For Leon Kriesel and Cheryl Burkhart-Kriesel, it’s turkey hunting.

“Sure, it’s quite a quirky thing, but it’s ours,” Cheryl Burkhart-Kriesel said.

Leon and Cheryl’s self-described “obsession, possession, all those wonderful words,” has spanned decades and thousands of miles. They’re close to hunting turkey in nearly every state except a handful — one problem being no wild turkeys in Alaska, but otherwise they have Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina left on the mainland. And Hawaii.

“That’s not going to happen,” Leon said, jokingly.

He’s not the only one who’s gone for the Gould, a type of Turkey in the Sonoran mountains in Mexico. The National Wild Turkey Federation keeps lists of people who’ve completed the U.S. Superslam, meaning catching turkey subspecies in every state except Alaska, and it’s a short list. There’s only 11 people.

Leon’s Kriesel’s goal to take a hunting trip in the South this past spring was sidelined by coronavirus.

The turkey hunting obsession started off harmlessly enough. Leon described his first turkey hunt in the early ‘80s with little fanfare, but it stuck with him. He said he started in the hills around Nebraska and morphed into journeys such as hunting seven turkeys across seven states in 11 days.

“It’s a challenge to outthink them, what they’re going to do, where they’re going to be,” he said, describing strategy for mimicking hens to call turkeys in.

Cheryl Burkhart-Kriesel said she doesn’t carry a gun but comes along on the trips to “keep the stories honest.”

“We got addicted, that’s the best word for it,” she said. “It started with a benign trip to Hay Springs, from there it’s kind of exploded.”

Now, as their passion enters its fourth decade, they have a few mementos, a book about a turkey trip made by an outfitter, pictures and the mounts. Nothing comes close to the glory of the ocellated turkey tom. It’s a subspecies found in Mexico with brown feathers that melt into a glow of iridescent greens and blues. Turquoise “eyes” stare from the back of males’ tail-feathers. As he talks about the hunt, Leon Kriesel strokes the white streaky wings used to impress hens. It’s the bright blue head, with yellow and red bumps called corns that really catches the eye. They know he was an older bird from his long ankle spurs used to fight other toms for hens’ attention.

“That look is one of a kind,” Cheryl Burkhart-Kriesel said.

Cheryl and Leon enjoy a wild turkey for their Thanksgiving celebration — they wouldn’t have it any other way.

USDA announces second round of funding for feral swine program

National Hog Farmer
USDA

The 2018 Farm Bill created the Feral Swine Eradication and Control Pilot Program and is a joint effort between NRCS and APHIS.

The USDA is accepting applications from non-federal, not-for-profit partners for projects to help agricultural producers and private landowners trap and control feral swine, which is part of the Feral Swine Eradication and Control Pilot Program. USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service is making $12 million available and will accept applications through Nov. 5, in eight priority states during its second round of project funding.

FSCP is a joint effort between NRCS and USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. The second round of funding is for partners to carry out activities as part of the identified pilot projects in select areas of Alabama, Hawaii, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas.

“The 2018 Farm Bill created this new pilot program to enable us to address threats to natural resources and agriculture posed by feral swine,” says Kevin Norton, NRCS acting chief. “This second investment will play a crucial role in getting landowners assistance they need.”

These new pilot projects and areas were selected in coordination with NRCS state conservationists, APHIS state directors and state technical committees to address feral swine issues and damage in areas with high densities.

Pilot projects consist broadly of three coordinated components: 1) feral swine removal by APHIS; 2) restoration efforts supported by NRCS; and 3) assistance to producers for feral swine control provided through partnership agreements with non-federal partners. Projects can be one to three years in duration and are planned to conclude at the end of fiscal year 2023 (Sept. 30, 2023).

The program was first announced in June 2019, and in the first round of funding, NRCS allocated almost $17 million for 20 projects across 10 states. Those projects will continue through the life of the 2018 Farm Bill in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas.

Axis deer hunter feels unfairly targeted

Axis deer hunter feels unfairly targeted

By TOM CALLIS

Stephens Media

tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com

Shortly before Christmas 2009, a helicopter carrying four axis deer — three alive, one dead — landed on a Ka‘u ranch.

Its cargo, brought in a metal crate from Maui, was unloaded and replaced with several mouflon sheep for the return trip.

With the duct tape around their legs removed, the surviving ungulates needed little coaching to exit.

Sensing freedom after the interisland flight, they bounded toward the safety and familiarity of the nearby brush.

For the men involved, that moment marked the start of a new food source for hunters on the Big Island, long frustrated by state efforts to slaughter animals considered harmful to native plants.

But for state and federal officials who would discover their presence in 2011, the prospect of an invasive species here proved concerning.

The south Asian deer, already well-established on Maui, Oahu, Lanai and Molokai after being first introduced in 1868, have frustrated ranchers and farmers for generations but have been prized by hunters.

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife investigation would later trace their Big Island introduction to a hunter from Mountain View, and a rancher and a pilot from Maui who arranged a sheep-for-deer swap between the two islands.

Eager to punish the act, yet unable to declare the deer introduction itself illegal, federal prosecutors successfully convicted the trio last month for possessing game animals without a permit and under the Lacey Act, which governs interstate commerce.

Each was fined and sentenced to community service helping battle invasive species or educate hunters.

County Begins Deer Harvest Cooperative

Imagine higher agricultural yields, fewer invasive species, and a new economic product that’s as versatile as it is plentiful: venison. That was the vision of the founders of the Maui Axis Deer Harvesting Cooperative (MADHC), a new initiative organized by the County of Maui. Its goal is to help farmers, ranchers and landowners control invasive axis deer on their property while addressing food security with zero waste. MADHC members are a group of certified, trained, hunters who can provide harvesting services to those receiving damage from axis deer. The meat will be shared between hunters and landowners, and in some cases, local slaughterhouses will process meat for resale.

While the cooperative is already active on Maui, some Molokai residents are looking at the possibilities for the Friendly Isle — turning venison into a trademark specialty while helping out farmers with deer problems. Phyllis Robinson, one of MADHC’s founders and pilot coordinator, said it’s still early in the process, but her goal is to be able to incorporate Molokai and Lanai into the program.

“We’d like to plant the seed of awareness,” she said. “It could be helpful to have a coordinated effort county-wide but unique efforts on each island.”

Robinson said she has been in communication with Molokai axis deer rancher and hunter Desmond Manaba to explore the possibility of establishing an auxiliary board on Molokai to organize similar services on the island and be part of the cooperative umbrella.

Manaba, who has been deer ranching on Molokai for 18 years, said he sees tremendous potential economic benefit axis deer.

Hawaii hunters sentenced in deer smuggling case

A federal judge sentenced two Hawaii hunters to community service today after an investigation into the interisland smuggling of axis deer by helicopter.

Neither man was charged with the smuggling itself, but prosecutors said their actions introduced axis deer to the Big Island for the first time and harmed the environment as a result.

Daniel Rocha of Mountain View on the Big Island was sentenced to 100 hours of community service for having sheep in his possession without a permit. U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Richard Puglisi also ordered Rocha to pay a $1,000 fine.

Puglisi ordered Jeffrey Grundhauser to perform 100 hours of community service for taking an unlicensed hunter to shoot game animals on his ranch in upcountry Maui. Grundhauser must also pay a $15,000 fine and will be on probation for one year.

The deer were introduced to the Big Island as part of a trade in December 2009.

Rocha provided Grundhauser’s hunting ranch with about a dozen mouflon sheep that he raised at his small farm in Mountain View. In exchange, Grundhauser gave Rocha four axis deer from Maui that Rocha released on a private ranch on the Big Island.

Protecting Public Lands

Residents testify against the PLDC at public hearing

“It is dangerous to put public lands in private hands,” said Molokai resident Kauhane Adams. Yet it seems that this is exactly what legislature created the Public Land Development Corporation (PLDC) to do when they passed senate bill Act 55 in 2011 that established the corporation.

The PLDC’s intent to “generate additional revenues for the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) by developing under-utilized or unused public land,” according to a written statement circulated by the PLDC.

Homesteader Adolph Helm claimed that the PLDC would allow “fast-track boondoggle projects that benefit the private developer and the pockets of the well-connected [while] stripping Native Hawaiian beneficiaries of trust lands.”

Sentiments against the advancement of the PLDC have echoed throughout the state at similar meetings hosted by the PLDC last month on Hawaii Island, Maui, Oahu and Kauai. These public hearing meetings were meant to gather community feedback on its proposed new administrative rules, but have largely resulted in Hawaiians calling for the repeal of Act 55 and the disbanding of the PLDC.

Who determines what is best for the land?
PLDC’s Executive Director Lloyd Haraguchi opened the Molokai meeting, held last week at Mitchell Pauole Center, with an example of an “unused public land” — an abandoned school building that, in addition to being a safety hazard, is not being used to the best of its ability. The space could instead be developed to generate additional revenue to benefit the Department of Education, said Haraguchi.