TAMPA — In the thick woods of the Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Preserve, a state-owned pickup crawled over a narrow dirt road Thursday.
Joe Howell sat on the hood of the truck jotting notes on a clipboard and looking at the road as Paul Elliott drove forward, announcing when they had moved a tenth of a mile.
After a short drive, Howell raised his hand and the two land management specialists with the Southwest Florida Water Management District jumped down to inspect tracks in the dirt.
"Little pigs," Elliott said. "There must have been a sow and a bunch of little pigs here."
The tracks were from feral hogs, an invasive species that wreaks havoc by tearing up ground and damaging wetlands, agriculture and private property. Elliott and Howell were conducting a three-day survey of the area to determine an index of the hog population and the effectiveness of efforts to control them.
"You can never eradicate them," Elliott said. "You just have to control them as much as possible."
The land management specialists performed a visual survey of hog damage in several areas of the preserve. The areas are classified as having high, medium or low damage. High damage areas become the focus of control efforts, including the setting of traps and organized hog hunts.
"They raise hell along the roads," Elliott said. "I would imagine there have been quite a few hogs hit on the road. So there is a public safety hazard there as well."
Later in the day, Elliott drove to a neighborhood off Morris Bridge Road where a group of hogs had ravaged lawns.
Feral hogs also spread disease. In 2005, more than 40 people contracted leptospirosis, a rare bacterial infection, after jogging through the Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Park during the national championships of the U.S. Adventure Racing Association.
Officials suspected the disease was spread from water contaminated by wild hogs.
Other threats are seen through damage to wetlands and forests. Lately the hogs feast on acorns scattered around the forest floors. But they will eat virtually anything they find, leaving behind deep grooves in the soil and trampled plants on the ground.
"Right now the hogs are not rooting that much because they get the acorns," Elliott said of one spot where he and Howell located a set of hog tracks. "But in another month this whole area will be rooted right out."
Dan Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3321.