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For the first time, Hillsborough deputies plan to shoot feral hogs

TAMPA — It has been 11 years now, and hunters with dogs and traps still haven't halted the growth of Hillsborough County's feral hog population.

So the county wants to see if law enforcement officers can do the job.

The 2016 county budget proposal includes $40,000 to fund a joint pilot program between the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office and the Conservation and Environmental Lands Management Department "to improve feral hog control effort" on county lands.

In layman's terms? For the first time, the county will shoot and kill feral hogs — long considered an invasive species in Florida — to try to drive them out of Hillsborough.

"The most effective strategy for hogs is to use multiple techniques or methods of removal," said Ken Bradshaw, the county's environmental lands management coordinator.

To be clear, the county doesn't plan to allow hog hunts on county land. For one, Bradshaw said that sport hunting "has not been shown to be effective in reducing hog populations."

Instead, trained deputies and lands management personnel, most likely operating at night, will shoot and remove pigs until the entire sounder (or group of feral pigs) is eliminated.

"If you don't get the whole sounder out," Bradshaw said, "they may come back."

The county and some conservationists accuse the invasive pigs of tearing up wetlands and rural areas. The lands management department estimates feral hogs have damaged about 17,000 acres preserved under the county's Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program and 280 fire lanes and access roads.

"They are an introduced species and they don't belong there and need to be removed," said Kent Bailey, chairman of Tampa Bay Group Sierra Club. "It needs to be as humane as possible, but they are doing a great deal of damage."

Nick Atwood, the campaigns coordinator for the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida, said shooting feral hogs is probably more humane than using dogs or painful traps that can leave the animals wounded and suffering for days.

But he also believes that eliminating hog populations by force is objectionable on its own. After all, he said, overdevelopment has pushed these animals closer to people.

Atwood contends that feral hogs were introduced into Florida so long ago that it's not fair to call them an invasive species anymore. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, wild pigs were first brought to the state by the Spanish in the 16th century.

"They've been here longer than us," Atwood said. "If we were talking about white-tailed deer or vultures or other animals that cause damage, I think the state and counties would come up with more creative solutions instead of always turning to control."

Both Atwood and Bailey said the pig population could be better kept in check if there were more Florida panthers around. But there are only between 100 to 180 of that endangered species left in the state.

The county hopes to donate the hog carcasses to the Wild Game Food Bank, which distributes the meat to soup kitchens and food pantries throughout the area.

The pilot program won't begin unless it is included in the final budget, which is expected to pass in September.

Contact Steve Contorno at Follow @scontorno.