Michigan aims to put teeth in feral hog rules
September 3, 2010 by
It isn't every day that wildlife and agricultural interests see eye-to-eye on things, but there's one area where almost everybody is in full agreement: Feral hogs.
Feral hogs are wildly destructive creatures. They eat everything in sight, including deer fawns, ground-nesting birds, crops and nuts and fruit that wildlife need. They carry diseases like pseudorabies that are fatal to pets and livestock and could severely damage Michigan's $400 million pork industry. Their wallowing behavior can turn crystal-clear trout streams into rank mud holes. And man, can they breed.
The state estimates there are somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 of the voracious critters living in Michigan; they've been spotted in at least 63 of Michigan's 83 counties. Feral hogs are estimated to cause nearly $1 billion in damage nationwide each year, and since a healthy sow can produce two to three litters of up to a dozen new rooting, eating, mating machines, wildlife and agriculture officials say the time to slam the door on feral hogs is now.
"We have the beginnings of a feral hog issue in the state of Michigan, and we have an opportunity at this point, if we all get together to work on it, to prevent what happened in Missouri, Texas, California and a number of other states," said Russ Mason, the Wildlife Division director for the Department of Natural Resources and Environment. "How we get that done, I don't really care. What we don't want are hogs outside fences causing damage to resources, agriculture, water supplies and everything else. Period."
Some feral hogs are farm escapes, but the majority have broken free from facilities that keep the animals -- most are Eurasian boars -- inside fences and charge hunters to shoot them. But regulation on Michigan's 40-some such facilities is non-existent. The Michigan DNRE is asking the Natural Resources Commission to declare all wild hogs -- including Russian or Eurasian boar, any hybrids or other permutations -- an invasive species that is illegal to possess. That ruling would effectively shut down swine-hunting lodges. The NRC is expected to rule at its Oct. 7 meeting in Lansing.
The possible ruling rankles Greg Johnson, owner of Bear Mountain Lodge, a 240-acre high fence operation that offers boar hunts in the Upper Peninsula. Johnson said his facility is well-engineered and includes a stout 10-foot fence that is electrified, and he keeps close tabs on his animals including disease testing. To Johnson, the animals inside the fence are livestock and do not qualify as feral swine. And he is not the problem.
"The engineered facilities, they contain the animals. They do not release the animals into the environment," Johnson said. "We know that's a fact through inspections. These are livestock animals. And the DNR has the right to shoot these animals if they're off the property."
Earlier this year the Michigan Legislature passed a "shoot-‘em" law that allows anyone with a valid hunting license to shoot a wild hog on sight. But since feral hogs are notoriously nomadic - and smart enough to flee when the shooting starts - it's hard for hunters to gain any ground on the population.
Proponents of the invasive species order say that's exactly why it's critical to simply shut off any future influx of wild hogs through escape. Dave Nyberg, the legislative affairs manager for the Michigan United Conservation Clubs, said state law requires any creature be listed as invasive if it poses a threat to human health, natural resources, agriculture or forests , or if there is no effective management technique. Feral hogs meet all five criteria, he said.
"As always, politics are muddying up the waters on this issue," he said. "The hog hunting facilities, that ranches that would be put out of business by this order, they're speaking very loudly about this issue and everybody should understand that. We would compare this to allowing someone to farm Asian carp in the middle of Lake Michigan."
The Michigan Pork Producers Association, which represents Michigan's 2,000 hog farmers, stands with MUCC in its opposition to feral swine, according to Executive Director Mary Kelpinski. She said about a third of the 2 million pigs raised annually in Michigan go to other states to be processed. A disease like pseudorabies, if domestic hogs become infected, could devastate the industry, she said.
"We've worked really hard to eliminate some diseases from the commercial herd and there's potential for feral swine to re-infect the herd," Kelpinski said. "We are really looking for some steps that we can take to eliminate the possibility of disease and support our industry. We support the NRC and thank them for bringing up the issue."
Johnson and other operators are hoping for a legislative solution that would leave their facilities open but force them to abide by strict rules. State Rep. James "Jase" Bolger (R-Marshall), introduced a bill on Wednesday that calls for stricter regulation of swine hunting lodges, including licensing, thorough record-keeping, sturdy fences, identification of animals, disease testing and regular inspections.
Bolger said combined with the shoot-‘em law, his measure would address hogs that have already escaped from hunting lodges and hog farms, as well as prevent future escapes.
"This is a significant issue for me, a big concern because agriculture is the second-largest industry in our state," he said. "There needs to be a response. However, I don't support the DNRE in its effort to shut down the swine hunting lodges. What I'm seeking to do for the public's sake, and for agriculture's sake, and for the economy's sake, is to protect both job-creating industries."
Johnson agrees that the problem is real and that his industry needs strict oversight, even if it means the expense of doing things the right way will put some out of business.
"We've got to get the bad actors out," he said. "The DNR, they have a serious responsibility and sometimes they have to beat real hard on the drum to get the point across. That's classic DNR. Everybody likes to make them the bad guy, but they're working to make sure the industry is pulling its act together."
Nyberg said the MUCC would support strict regulations that would prevent escapes from hog-hunting facilities, but doubts there's enough money for meaningful oversight. He said a $1,000 licensing fee would raise only a fraction of the money required to oversee the industry and force compliance.
"That's not even enough to pay for one full-time employee," he said.
"Laws are fine, but somebody's got to enforce it," he said. Where's the money coming from? The general funds aren't there. Which old folks home are you going to close? Which roads aren't you going to pave? If these guys are serious about this they need to cover their cost. You want to be a businessman, pay the cost, pay the regulatory freight and don't put that burden on the people in this state."