Feral hogs at the root of damaged San Felasco trails


Jerry Yermorsky, at left, and Florida Parks Ranger Randy Brown are pictured with a hog cage located in San Felasco Hammock in Alachua, Fla., Wednesday, January 30, 2013. Feral hogs are tearing up the environment by rooting and are populating rapidly. Yermorsky, who bikes a lot on the trails, is trying to get a hunting program approved to remove the hogs.

Doug Finger/Staff Photographer
Published: Sunday, February 10, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, February 9, 2013 at 5:43 p.m.

Hogs aren't nicknamed rooters for nothing, and if something isn't done to stop them, all 7,300 acres of San Felasco Hammock State Preserve could end up a rototilled mess because of the beasts.

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Jerry Yermorsky, at left, and Florida Parks Ranger Randy Brown are pictured with a hog cage located in San Felasco Hammock in Alachua, Fla., Wednesday, January 30, 2013. Feral hogs are tearing up the environment by rooting and are populating rapidly. Yermorsky, who bikes a lot on the trails, is trying to get a hunting program approved to remove the hogs.

Doug Finger/Staff Photographer

Believed to have been introduced by hunters who brought them to adjacent property as game only to have them escape, hogs have been a problem in the park for years and are thwarting the only current method of trying to get rid of them — trapping.

"We spend thousands of hours building trails, and to see the damage done by the hogs is really upsetting," said Jerry Yermovsky, a mountain biker and member of the preserve's citizen support organization. "That's my selfish motive. The really sad part is to see the damage being done to the ecology of the park."

The snouts of feral hogs are sensitive and strong. They can find food by smell and are powerful enough to dig it up.

By eating acorns and seeds, feral hogs are gobbling the food of native animals such as deer and turkeys. The hogs also will eat fish, small ground-nesting birds, turtles and snakes.

"They'll eat just about anything they come upon," San Felasco manager Randy Brown says.

The hogs' rooting destabilizes the soil surface, which can lead to erosion and help spread exotic plants.

And the swine cover a lot of territory — they range over 450 to 750 acres, sometimes more, in search of food.

While hogs do much of their feeding at night and bed down during the day, Yermovsky said park users often see hogs. And they see their impact in acre after acre of earth that looks as if a fleet of tillers moved through.

Officials say it is difficult to determine how many hogs make their home in the preserve, but the number has been estimated at more than 1,000 and growing.

Brown said no simple fix exists.

Piglets might be snatched by bobcats and coyotes, but this region has no predator that can take down bigger hogs.

Hunting would be one way of reducing the preserve's population, but it would require closing the park for at least a week at a time, which would deprive people of its use, Brown said.

Trapping is being done, but not enough to keep pace with the number of hogs being born.

Brown said the park pays for a trapper contracted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. About 200 hogs have been caught over the past several years.

Private trappers could be used, but the state-required liability insurance of about $1,000 a year keeps their ranks low.

Volunteer trappers also can be used, but they either must donate the meat to a nonprofit if it is USDA-inspected or leave the carcass in the park.

Trapping hogs is not easy. Trappers usually begin baiting the area around the trap for days or weeks. When food is put in the trap, the trap doors are not set initially so the hogs can get used to going in and out.

Hogs have been known to escape all sorts of traps.

"One of the USDA hogs might have been close to 400 pounds. But most of the hogs that go into the traps are smaller ones. They average maybe 100 or 125 pounds," Brown said. "Hogs are intelligent animals. If a hog ever goes into a trap and escapes, or if several hogs get trapped and one outside sees it, they become trap-wary."

Meanwhile, the hogs have been spreading outside the preserve. Residents of subdivisions on the western end of Millhopper Road, such as the Hammock, have for several years had their yards and gardens rooted.

Recently, the swine have been spotted in neighborhoods on the eastern end of Millhopper Road close to the busy Hunter's Crossing intersection of Northwest 43rd Street and 53rd Avenue.

Larry Keen, who lives in the Deer Run subdivision, said he recently spotted three hogs in his backyard after previously having seen evidence of pig rooting.

"I planted a vermiliad, and something yanked it out of the ground and threw it 10 feet. I don't think an armadillo would do that," Keen said. "In November or December, I went out and there were three of them. It was plain as day — they are all shoulders and no hindquarters. You grow up and you think of pigs as this fat, slovenly pink animal, but these animals were much more gray, and what literally startled me was how fast and agile they were."

Keen said the hogs ran out of his unfenced yard into a drainage canal.

Yermovsky, meanwhile, admits he gets "obsessed" with the swine because he knows of the thousands of hours park users spend building and maintaining the trails.

He added that the park service has asked the citizen support organization to pay the liability insurance of private trappers, but no decision has been made.

Yermovsky said he believes the decision to not allow hunting is wrong.

"We would like to see much more trapping and the possibility of the park allowing hunting," he said. "The park closes at sundown and opens at sunup. There is no reason why there couldn't be hunting at night. It doesn't necessarily have to be open to the public. It could be agents of the state. The current policies of the park are not making a dent in the population."

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