Feral hogs in the north: Is it already too late?
September 1, 2010 by
In northern states where wild hogs have shown up in the past few years, official instructions for hunters afield have gone something like this:
There are rules, but barely. Shoot them any time of day. Use any weapon. Kill as many as you please. You need a hunting license, but any kind will do. The only restriction in Wisconsin is that you can't shoot them the day before firearm deer season starts. In Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio, it's blast away.
"The only thing good I can say about feral hogs is that they make coyotes look easy," said Mike Bodenchuk, of the Texas Wildlife Services program, who addressed Michigan's Natural Resources Commission on May 7, 2009. "I call it an ecological train wreck. You can't find any part of the ecosystem that isn't affected by feral hogs."
Bodenchuk would know. His state is home to roughly half of the estimated 4 million feral hogs roaming the United States. There, wild hogs destroy $52 million in planted crops every year, he said. They carry disease, compete with wildlife for food, prey upon deer fawns and ground-nesting birds, spread invasive plants, destroy fences, cause erosion and dump e. coli bacteria into streams.
Believe it or not, those are the more subtle impacts. Hogs have also been known to directly attack humans, Bodenchuk said. Last year, two armed police officers in Austin were charged by a hog that was hiding in some bushes. The officers killed the hog, but the incident raised fears about what could have happened had the hog charged a child, Bodenchuk said.
Further, hog eyes do not reflect automobile headlights like those of deer, raccoons and other mammals. That makes them especially susceptible to vehicle crashes.
And let's not forget that hogs are machines when it comes to procreation. A healthy sow can produce two to three litters of piglets a year, each with up to a dozen new rooting, eating, mating machines. Bodenchuk showed a breeding model that demonstrates how a single pregnant sow can birth her way to 1,400 hogs within 33 months.
"We have a joke that the average litter is eight piglets and 10 of them survive," Bodenchuk said.
So far hog numbers in northern states are small. Michigan is estimated to have between 3,000 and 5,000; in Wisconsin it could still be under 100. But Bodenchuk warns that Texas had no hog problem 15 years ago. That's why it's imperative for northern states where hog populations are just taking hold to deal with them swiftly and forcefully, he said.
"Wildlife managers have no concept what they're dealing with with hogs," said Dennis Fijalkowski, executive director of the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy, who said he hunted hogs for two years while he was stationed in Germany. "Germans have been trying to eradicate hogs for 500 years without success. They're almost a nomadic species. (Wildlife managers) are used to dealing with animals that have precise home ranges. You start shooting (hogs) and two days later they're 30 miles away. That's why they can survive hunting for 500 years."
Fijalkowski said hogs are now found in 30 states and do at least $800 million damage annually to forests, farmlands, lawns and golf courses.
The wild northern hogs' origins are not completely clear, but their bloodlines appear to include Russian boars that have escaped from game ranches, and domestic hogs that have escaped their enclosures or were allowed to roam free. Some appear to have been released deliberately and illegally for hunting.
"They are very opportunistic," said Brad Koele (pronounced COO-ley), a biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. "We have a lot of agriculture, and it doesn't take long if they get into a cornfield to wipe it out pretty quickly."
And these aren't the little pink piglets you see on the farm. Even escaped domestic hogs grow longer hair and teeth and begin behaving wildly, according to Koele. By the time you get to a second or third generation, they're fully furred and armed with sharp tusks that they aren't shy about using.
"They kill two to four people annually throughout the world and that's very much an underestimate," Fijalkowski said. "In western Europe a hunter was killed just a couple months ago by a 400-pound male. That's going to happen in America. They're going to be destructive. They're going to make bears look like kindergartners."
Some states, like Kansas, are trying to solve the wild hog problem without the help of hunters. The rationale is that getting hunters involved would cause hog-hunting -- and thus hogs -- to proliferate. But eradicating hogs will take a widespread effort from everyone, Fijalkowski said.
"You need the help of hunters, they need to be part of the solution," he said. "And you need Grandma. If Grandma is baking pies in the kitchen and she sees a couple hogs in her garden, she should be able to go to her closet, get a shotgun and shoot them on the spot."
Some officials say involving hunters raises a chicken-and-egg question about how the hogs got here in the first place and whether turning hunters loose on them could create an even bigger problem by making the critters desirable game.
"That's our concern, that people are going to want them on the landscape for hunting," Koele said. "This is not a hunting opportunity. We're not looking for pigs on the landscape. In any state the negatives far outweigh the advantages."
In the past decade or so, feral hogs have established small populations in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and possibly other states. And while their origins are unclear, researchers are pretty sure they didn't just show up.
"There's no mechanism of natural dispersal up there," said Tyler Campbell, who leads feral hog research for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services Division. "There's no way they can naturally pop up in pockets. They have to be brought in or released. There's no way that they could naturally be going up the river drainages unnoticed."
In 2008 a Texas man was charged with releasing 31 Texas hogs in southwestern Wisconsin in 2002. Prosecutors said he released the hogs because he was angry with the Wisconsin DNR over its deer-management policies. Charges against him were dropped when a witness changed his mind about testifying, according to reports. Crawford County, where the release is alleged to have happened, is home to a small population of feral hogs, Koele said.
Also in 2008, authorities intercepted a trailer in southern Colorado loaded with 16 wild hogs from Texas. Campbell said 14 of the animals tested positive for pseudorabies, a virus that can kill not only domestic pigs but also sheep, cattle, dogs and cats.
Michigan and Wisconsin are trapping hogs and instructing hunters to shoot as many as they can. Wisconsin has passed a law that classifies feral hogs as harmful wild animals and is systematically eliminating private ownership of Eurasian boars. Michigan's Natural Resources Commission is considering similar regulation.
Some facilities in Wisconsin raise Eurasian boars for meat production, and those will likely be grandfathered in and allowed to continue operating. Wisconsin's main goal is prevention of disease.
"I think we've come a long way, in Wisconsin anyway, in monitoring the movement of these animals and we're definitely making progress and reducing the risk of these animals spreading disease," Koele said.
Complicating matters is the fragmented nature of wild hog control, according to Campbell. Even though they're spreading all over the Great Lakes region, states define hogs differently and are taking different approaches in managing them. The result is a hodge-podge of marginally effective treatments.
"It's really a complicated process because there are not unified regulations," Campbell said. "In some states they're considered a game animal, in other states you can kill them by any means year-round. My recommendation would be to get your finger on the problem as soon as possible, through a multi-agency task force where you can unify and bring all the interested parties together and get a finger on the problem before it gets out of control."
The good news, according to Bodenchuk, is that it's not too late to stop northern hogs. They're suckers for a good bait pile, especially in winter. And if states can clamp down on the movement of hogs between fenced game ranches, that will cut off the supply so hog numbers can be driven down.
"We've got a problem (in Texas) and I think you guys are on the cusp of it," he said. "With isolated pockets, I think you can eradicate them."