WASHINGTON, July 12, 2017 - The nation’s feral hog population is growing, despite increased government involvement and funding to combat the menace that is blamed for billions of dollars in damage each year.
Three years ago, Congress appropriated $20 million to fund the first government program to manage the problem. This year, lawmakers upped spending to $25 million.
The program has had success in states where feral swine populations were already low, virtually eradicating the pigs in Maryland, New York, Wisconsin, Idaho, Washington and New Jersey, according to Dale Nolte, who heads up the government program for USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Some farmers in the Mississippi Delta region, where wild hogs once terrorized the landscape, are now able to sow crops with expectations of harvest. “To me, that’s a huge success,” Nolte said.
But Southern states such as Texas, still have no relief from the millions of feral pigs within their borders. “We’ve got them everywhere,” said Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller in a phone interview, adding “They’re destroying everything.”
Feral pigs have been causing an estimated $2 billion in damage nationally each year, destroying crops and habitats for native species, damaging private property, and in some cases tearing up entire golf courses, Nolte said. They also threaten to spread disease in commercial pig operations. Nolte estimated the feral hog population to be around 6 million, though he acknowledged numbers are difficult to determine. In a 2014 Agri-Pulse story on the problem, APHIS estimated the population at around 5 million.
“If you have populations of wild swine, there’s virtually no crop they can’t damage,” Nolte said. “You can kind of imagine what that does to a golf course.” Feral pigs can dig holes more than three feet deep, earning them the title of nature’s “rototillers.”
In Texas, wild pigs are encroaching into urban areas, according to Miller. They are tearing up lawns and even turning over tombstones.
“They’re like rats and mice, they repopulate just like that,” Miller said, adding that sows can produce a litter of six to eight piglets just about every four months. What’s more, 70 percent of the population must be eradicated each year just to maintain the population.
Farmers and ranchers, especially in areas with a large number of wild pigs, can experience thousands of dollars in just a few weeks, said Scott Dover, president and founder of the Texas Hog Hunters Association Dover. He noted that a trapper will charge around $500 a month to monitor and manage one trap for a farmer or rancher. It is common for farmers and ranchers to have upwards of four traps on their land, costing $2,000 a month.
Trappers often use the latest technology, said Dover. They can set a trap then get a text alert when the trap is full, activate with the push of a button. Sometimes whole clans, or sounders can be caught at the same time. The pigs can be loaded up on a trailer and sold for between 40 to 50 cents a pound.
But trapping is just one option to manage feral pig populations. In Texas, lawmakers, pushed by Miller, have given landowners the OK to shoot pigs from helicopters and hot air balloons
Miller also tried, unsuccessfully, to use the anti-coagulant warfarin as a way to kill off the problem. But that plan was dropped amid opposition from hunters and sportsmen’s groups who said meat from the animals would then be unusable.
Feral swine populations may never be completely eradicated, but Nolte is optimistic there could be controlled population in the future. “I’d like to hope in 20 some years we’re way ahead of this,” Nolte said. “What I do hope is that in the next handful of years we can actually show a beginning of decline in population and damages.”
Agri-Pulse asked Miller what it would take to really crack down on the feral hog population in Texas. He said, “We need to hunt them and exterminate them. We need to trap them and kill those that are trapped. We need to continue aerial attacks. We need a reproductive sterilant.”
Miller pointed out that there is “nothing close” to a reproductive sterilant that would hit the market anytime soon. However, two toxicants are being researched right now. In fact, Miller said a sodium nitrate-based toxicant is about a year and a half away from hitting the market.
Though the government program Nolte heads has not completed registration with the National Environmental Policy Act to allow use of toxicants, he doesn’t swear them off. “We do think any tool available needs to be considered,” Nolte said.
Is the government doing enough? Dover doesn’t think so. He hasn’t seen any help from the government program. In fact, he called the program a roadblock, saying it is hard to “reach out to the right people on those levels to get the help … we need down here.” However, Dover pointed out that Arkansas and Alabama seem to get more assistance from the state Wildlife Services to set up traps.
Nolte responded to Dover’s comments by noting the program provides funds to state directors of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to address feral swine concerns.
“I’d like to see states and different departments try to work with us and see what we can do together,” he said, adding “We could make a really good game plan.” Dover said, adding that he encourages lawmakers to learn more about the issue. “We absolutely need all the help and fans we can get.”