What Will It Take to Tackle America’s Feral Hog Problem?

Josh Ritchey has become accustomed to seeing craters and ruts strewn across his fields—signs of unwelcome visitors on his Stephenville, Texas farm. Often, before harvest time rolls around, a good portion of his wheat and hay crop have been plowed over or rooted up.The culprit? Drifts of feral swine that demolish anything in their path.

“They’re very opportunistic. They can sniff a crop out right before it’s ready to harvest,” Ritchey says. “Sometimes, I feel like I’m fighting an inferno with a water pistol…There’s always more back a month later.”

In recent years, the fourth-generation farmer says feral swine have contributed to a 10-percent annual loss in his crops. He’s heard of neighboring producers that have lost up to 30 percent of their yields.

Ritchey, who is also a realtor, believes a big reason why farmers and ranchers haven’t seen any improvements is due to the enthusiasm for hunting feral hogs as a sport. In Texas, they’re one of few animals aside from quail that can be hunted year-round, supporting the state’s multi-billion-dollar sport hunting industry.

“When I’m selling property, one of the first questions I hear is ‘are there pigs?’ and  ‘I want it if it has pigs,’” he says. “Many landowners are protective of them and are happy to let them stay on their property.”

The infestation of wild pigs is not specific to the Lone Star State. Across the country, voices in agriculture and conservation say feral swine have increasingly posed a threat by tearing up fields, scarfing down crops and polluting water—causing an economic fallout among producers and potentially passing on diseases or parasites to other animals or humans. Some scientific studies have even calculated that, annually, when droves of feral hogs tear up the ground across the globe, they release the carbon trapped in the soil that’s equivalent to 1.1 million cars.

Recent estimates say there are anywhere from 6.5 million to 9 million feral hogs across at least 30 states, which carry a price tag of anywhere from $1.5 billion to $2.5 billion in damages and control. The USDA has referred to the phenomenon as “the feral swine bomb.”

But wild pigs weren’t always viewed as pests. During the 16th century, feral swine were brought to the United States by colonizers as a source of food. Then, in the 1900s, the Eurasian or Russian wild boar was introduced into parts of the country for the purpose of sport hunting. Today, these animals, identified by their barrel-shaped bodies, pointy snouts and beady eyes, are a combination of escaped domestic pigs, Eurasian wild boars or hybrids of the two.

Now, the pests terrorize farmers, ranchers and even suburbanites. There are differing views, however, on what the best approach is to tackling the issue—as well as whether the growing populations are even a problem at all.

Farmers and ranchers want wild hogs gone for good. Hunters want to keep enough of their population around for their leisure. Some see the issue of feral swine as a long game that will take years to address. Others believe it needs to be solved urgently, and they want the government to cough up the cash in order to do so.

There’s also a lack of a consensus on state and federal intervention as some feel states should carve out their own approach. California, for instance, is in the process of introducing new legislation that would create greater opportunities to hunt the animals as a management tactic. Yet others argue that blanket measures would be most effective.

Reginald Barrett, professor emeritus at University of California, Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management, has studied wild hogs since 1966. Wild hogs have a short gestation period, can produce two litters a year and can give birth to up to 10 piglets at a time. In order to see any meaningful reduction in their numbers, Barrett says that roughly 70 percent of the population would need to be killed off each year.  These calculations are based on prior research in Queensland, Australia, where he documented swine growing at a rate of one pig per square mile to 100 pigs per square mile in three years.

“I considered writing a paper early on in my career called  ‘the pigs are coming, the pigs are coming,’ but never got it done,” he says. “I figured at that point they were probably here to stay.”

Instead of focusing on the threat of their arrival, Barrett shifted parts of his research to focus on how to effectively manage and best eradicate feral swine. With any pests, including wild pigs, Barrett says, the best and cheapest way to get rid of them is to do it as quickly as possible. However, this often involves paying a hefty price tag upfront, which some governments are not willing to do. As a point of reference, the cost of aerial gunning on California’s Channel Islands alone, Barrett says, racked up about $250,000 per island over the span of six months.

Barrett cites a success story on Santa Cruz Island from June 1989 to January 1991, when the Nature Conservancy was able to eradicate its population of pigs by using a variety of methods such as aerial hunting in helicopters, trapping and hunting with dogs. If you aren’t on an island, he adds, it’s best you build a wire mesh fence that prevents the pigs from leaving or returning.

“They will readily disperse,” he says. “You can hit them hard in one place, but you know, unless you’re going to be watching them every day, you’re going to be back in the pig business before you know it.”

Feral hogs’ brazen destruction has captured the attention of the federal government since 2014. A spokesperson from the USDA says the agency acted “in response to the increasing damage and threats posed by expanding feral swine populations in the United States” through creating the National Feral Swine Damage Management Program that same year. The $20 million earmarked for the program sought to eliminate populations, protect agriculture and natural resources as well as animal and human health. It was led by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which worked with other federal agencies, states, Indigenous groups, local organizations and universities to establish specific approaches.

The USDA credits this program to eliminating hogs from Washington, Colorado, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Vermont, Idaho, Maine, New Jersey, Maryland and New York, although it’s worth noting that these are states where sport hunting the animals isn’t as widely pursued as in more southern states.

A new pilot program aims to eradicate wild pig populations. Formally known as the Feral Swine Eradication and Control Pilot Program (FSCP), it’s a joint effort between the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and APHIS. The program was established as a result of the 2018 Farm Bill “to respond to the threat feral swine pose to agriculture, native ecosystems, and human and animal health.”

Since 2020, the FSCP has existed to support states with the highest recorded hog populations. The USDA is working with Auburn University and Texas A&M to assess damage caused by feral swine before, during and after their removal across all participating states. This includes Texas along with Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, North Carolina and South Carolina. Total funding for the program is $75 million for the life of the 2018 Farm Bill and is divided evenly between the APHIS and NRCS. The initiative’s three components consist of feral swine removal by APHIS, restoration efforts supported by NRCS and assistance to producers for feral swine control provided through grants with non-federal partners.

“The strategy is two-fold,” says a USDA spokesperson. “First, we are working to eliminate feral swine in states where populations are low or newly emerging; and second, we are reducing feral swine numbers to minimize damage in states where populations are large and widely distributed. Through these efforts, APHIS protects agricultural and natural resources, property, animal health and human health and safety by reducing feral swine damage through a co-ordinated national effort.”

As a participant in the program, Ritchey—based in Erath County, Texas (population 42,698)—shares six electronic traps between farmers, ranchers and landowners who want to rid the animals from their area. His county has been able to harvest about 300 pigs in the past seven months.

In Oklahoma, Trey Lam, executive director of the Oklahoma Conservation Commission, oversees his state’s participation in the pilot program. To date, it has purchased 25 electronic traps that can be operated remotely—10 of which are shared among three counties and 15 shared among six counties in Oklahoma’s southwest region. There are no fences being used as a trapping measure, but APHIS personnel have been trying to hunt the hogs from helicopters for roughly six months. The state has also made an effort to collaborate with neighboring Texas around its border.

Electronic traps, operated remotely, capture a good catch in Osage County, Oklahoma. Photo courtesy of the Oklahoma Conservation Commission.

“We’re trying our best to assess the damage and capture these animals,” says Lam. “The greatest fear, and certainly the greatest fear from the swine industry, is that [infectious diseases such as] brucellosis or pseudorabies that affect swine so badly will be transmitted over into domestic animals.”

From June to December 2021, Oklahoma was able to kill 4,139 hogs in the state’s Osage Pawnee, Red River and Upper Red River regions. But Lam says the commission has been fielding requests from those outside of the counties of focus, speaking to the need for more resources.

“I know of local farmers and ranchers who are making crop decisions and changing rotations based on how much they can avoid hogs,” he says. “From a conservation point of view, it’s really thrown a wrench in our approach to improving state soil through no till.”

He echoed Ritchey’s comments about the sport hunting industry, stating that people often transport a number of hogs to an area of their choosing for hunting and then leave them to reproduce. But, generally, Lam believes the pilot program has foundational value in creating a broader approach to effectively tackle wild pig numbers. He remains hopeful that the situation will be resolved in the future.

Ritchey is less optimistic. He believes there needs to be a blanket approach executed across the country, as well as more political will on the part of the federal government to drown out the sport hunting industry. For the time being, he’ll continue to keep his feet in both worlds—selling property to handfuls of aspiring hog hunters while engaging in what seems to him like a never-ending game of whack a mole.

The post What Will It Take to Tackle America’s Feral Hog Problem? appeared first on Modern Farmer.

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