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.

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