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Swiftmud ranch is seventh heaven for rooting hogs

EX: The wild hogs here, you could say, are going hog wild.

Snouts burrowed into the ground, they are churning up the soil in a hungry search for roots, grubs and acorns. In their wake, they leave trails of earth denuded of all vegetation.

"They eat anything and everything they can get their snouts on," said soil scientist Paul Pilny, president of a citizens' group called Friends of the Flying Eagle. "These things are mini-rototillers."

This piggish behavior is worrying the Southwest Florida Water Management District (Swiftmud), which bought the 10,000-acre former cattle ranch in 1986 for $5-million.

Under trees, along the shores of ponds and elsewhere in the vast tract, the brown and black bristle-haired beasts are severely damaging wetlands, dirt roads and other areas.

Swiftmud outlined a plan last week to reduce the hog population by trapping and removing them from the property bordering the Withlacoochee River from State Road 44 to County Road 48.

The previous owners allowed hunting on the ranch, which kept down the number of hogs, said Fritz Musselmann, director of Swiftmud's land resources department.

"We don't want to eradicate them," he said. "We want hogs on the property. We just have an overpopulation of them."

Swiftmud does not know how many hogs live on the ranch. The hogs are thought to be descendants of those brought for food by Hernando De Soto and other Europeans in their explorations of the New World, Pilny said.

The wild hogs would be caught alive in wire and wood traps with bait. Swiftmud plans to use a trapper, who either could move or sell the hogs. A percentage of any income would go to Swiftmud, Musselmann said.

He said it probably will be several months before the trapping begins. The trapping is planned for a one-year trial period. If it fails to control the hog population, agency staff may recommend allowing limited public hunting of the hogs, Musselmann said.

The Swiftmud board turned down a staff recommendation in 1988 for a public hunt to control animal populations at Flying Eagle. Other animals on the property include deer, wild turkey and quail.

Pilny thinks the agency should allow the public to take hogs and other animals in strictly controlled hunts instead of recruiting a trapper.

A hunt, using only bow and arrow or single-shot, muzzle-loading guns, would accomplish the same goal as trapping and also help the local economy, he said.

Hunters would come from around the state and would spend money on lodging and meals, he said, and some might be enticed by the county's natural beauty to stay and build a home.

Pilny's group takes students and others to Flying Eagle Ranch and the Withlacoochee State Forest to show them the natural beauty and to educate them about protecting the environment.

Swiftmud allows hunting, managed by the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, at its 54,000-acre Green Swamp property in Sumter, Lake and Polk counties.

At Swiftmud's Hillsborough River flood detention area in Hillsborough County and at Myakka River State Park in Sarasota County, hogs are trapped.

But at Flying Eagle, the Swiftmud board has decided hunting could interfere with other recreational uses such as horseback riding, Musselmann said. Another factor in the board's thinking was the exceptional beauty of the property, he said.

The board thought it would be best "through time to leave it alone and try as much as possible to let nature take its course," he said.

The Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission prefers to allow all types of hunting to serve more of the public, but the property owner has the right to decide whether to limit weapons, said Carlton Chappell, assistant chief of the commission's bureau of wildlife management.

The hunts, generally open to a limited number of people selected by lottery, keep animal populations from getting so large _ as the number of hogs has _ that they eat up their food source or otherwise upset their ecosystem.

"It's to the advantage of the economy in Citrus County, but it's also to the advantage of the game animals," Pilny said.