Commissioners say they had no choice but to OK hog hunts

A July 10 presentation by Southwest Florida Water Management District includes a slide with statistics about feral hogs.

Although 10 county residents pleaded with them not to approve feral hog hunts they described as barbaric and inhumane, the majority of the Sarasota County commissioners on July 10 said they had no choice but to act to preserve environmentally sensitive lands in South County.

Commissioner Jon Thaxton cast the only “No,” vote among the five board members, saying, that while he had been hunting since childhood, “this particular methodology does not fit our county.”

Thaxton’s comments drew cheers from the audience in the chambers, prompting Chairwoman Christine Robinson to admonish the public: “No, no, no. This is like a courtroom. We’re respecting everybody’s opinions.”

Before saying he could not support the hunts, Thaxton  referenced some of the speakers’ comments: “I began my hunting career at an age so young I don’t even know when it was,” he said. “I think I turned out OK in terms of being of sound mind and of being passionate towards animals.”

Moreover, he said, “I still look at youth hunting as being a very good activity.”

In making the motion to approve the hunts, Commissioner Carolyn Mason said she personally had seen “the damage that the hogs do on the environmentally sensitive lands,” which had been purchased with taxpayer money.

She was comforted by the fact that trapping and fencing also were employed as means to reduce the hogs’ damage, she said.

“It’s not a popular decision,” Mason added, “but I find it a necessary decision.”

Speakers and dozens of emails sent to the commissioners over the past month cited the use of dogs to track down the hogs and pin them by their ears while hunters used knives to kill the hogs. The commission had tackled the topic on June 5 but had decided to seek more information before discussing the matter again.

The July 10 vote followed about 30 minutes of public comments at the outset of the afternoon session in Venice and 15 minutes of the commissioners’ questioning of staff and Southwest Florida Water Management District representatives.

Only one person, Hank Duyn, supported the hunts. Others who were in favor of them, he said, were unable to attend the meeting because of their work schedules.

The vote will make it possible for two, three-night hunts to be held in the Deer Prairie Creek Preserve and the adjacent South Schewe Tract in December and in March 2013. The events had been proposed as a pilot program to help control the hog population that has been proliferating in environmentally sensitive lands.

The county and SWFWMD jointly own and manage the 6,440-acre Deer Prairie Creek Preserve, which is located south of Interstate 75, east of the Myakka River and north and west of the City of North Port.

Commissioner Joe Barbetta seconded Mason’s motion to approve the hunts, pointing out that the board had a fiduciary responsibility to represent the 390,000 people in Sarasota County, not just those opponents of the hunt who were in the audience.

Barbetta also noted that the county’s Environmentally Sensitive Lands Oversight Committee had recommended approval of the hunts, with only one committee member voting “No.” The Sarasota County Parks and Recreation Advisory Council unanimously voted to recommend approval, he added, referring to earlier staff comments.

Moreover, Barbetta said, “I don’t profess to second-guess professionals,” and the hunts were what the professionals had recommended.

He added, “Look at the damage not only to the land but to the nesting birds [and animals] that are killed” by the hogs.

Commissioner Nora Patterson drew a few chuckles when she said, “I grew up in Manhattan; we didn’t hunt a lot.”

She added that while she never had shot and killed an animal, she agreed with Barbetta and Mason that the commissioners seemed to have no clear alternatives to approving the hunts.

“Maybe at some other point we can do things differently, if they come up with another method.”

During a presentation to the board, Terri Behling, senior community affairs program manager for SWFWMD, said the feral hog population in Florida has become the second largest in the Southeastern United States, with Texas having the largest number.

Across the United States, she said, the total damage estimate from wild hogs had been estimated at $15 billion.

“They will hunt and eat pretty much anything that comes into their path,” she added.

The hogs also can transmit diseases to humans, livestock and wildlife, Behling said.

Not only have the animals caused extensive damage to native habitats and environmentally sensitive lands, she said, but they also have proven to be significant predators of quail and turkey nests.

Decreased water quality and the spread of exotic, invasive plants also had resulted from the hogs’ activities, Behling said.

Hunting and trapping had proven to be the two most effective means of controlling the feral hog population, she said.

Contract trapping on the Deer Prairie Creek Reserve since 2008 had resulted in the removal of 975 hogs, she said. To maintain the status quo, she added, 60% to 80% of the hogs needed to be removed each year from the preserve.

When Patterson asked how effective the hunts would be in achieving that goal, Behling said they would be 50% more effective than other methods because the hogs would be removed in a shorter period of time. Dogs are able to track the animals better than a human walking the trails “and hoping to come across a hog,” Behling said.

Additionally, she pointed out that the preserve was closed to the public at night, when the hunts would take place.

Hunts held elsewhere

Barbetta said research he had undertaken had shown that some national parks — including the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee, allowed such hunts.

Behling had pointed out earlier that Hillsborough and Pasco counties also allowed feral hog hunts like those proposed for Sarasota County.

When Patterson asked whether all the jurisdictions that allowed such hunts permitted the use of knives to kill the hogs, Behling said, “We do allow both knives and guns.”

When Patterson persisted, asking, “But you could mandate a gun?” Stephanie Greene, the senior land management specialist for SWFWMD, never answered the question. She reiterated Behling’s comment that both knives and guns were allowed.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission also permits such hunts, Greene said. The decision on weapons “depends on the agency,” she added.

When Robinson asked why sterilization methods had not been approved for the hogs, Greene said no contraceptive had been developed that could specifically target hogs. The animals could be injected with medication if they were trapped, Greene said; however, medication could not be left out in the wild for them to consume, because other mammals would be affected by it.