Feral Pigs on the run
By Kate Burns
On the 34 square feet of what is known as Manhattan Island, the southern tip is tamped by settlement, surrounded by rivers and the hulking wilderness. This tiny coastal village is New Amsterdam, populated by 270 people, all under the Dutch flag. The settlers perch on the tip of the New World, guarded by a simple boundary that lies between the civilized and the wild named ‘de Waal Straat’. It is an earthen mound built about 6 feet tall, stretching across the northern reach of New Amsterdam. Patrols walk the mound periodically, watchful for a threat that had accompanied them to the New World. The feral assailants of the settlers are so vicious and destructive a wall to defend against them was called for; thus Wall Street was made.
Sus scrofa, feral pigs, wild hogs, razorbacks; swine accompanied Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to Cuba, pigs arrived at Plymouth with the Mayflower, pigs were the legacy left by Spanish explorers looking for gold in Florida. The animals were trouble as soon as they arrived on the continent and the struggle against them goes on. Feral pig populations were established from hogs turned loose as a living cache of food for settlers or explorers could hunt as needed. That was over 300 years ago, but the wild pigs remain with a population estimated to be 4 million. The feral pig population in the US grows everyday, recently into the southeastern counties of Ohio. We may be losing the war on swine.
Hogs have traditionally been a southern pest, so common the University of Arkansas’s mascot is the Razorback, the ‘running hogs’. Until 1987, feral hogs were limited to 17 southern states. But as of 2011, wild pigs have been documented in 45 states, including Hawaii.
Feral hogs, or as they are advertized ‘Wild Boar’, have become the second most popular big game animal in the United States since 1980. Pigs are being stocked on game reserves in many states across the nation. Such preserves strive for the pristine, ‘wild’ environment enjoyed by hunters; meaning the game roam large tracks of land that are minimally enclosed. The only law in Ohio pertaining to a preserve’s use of wild pigs is the fences must be six feet high. “In Texas we say, ‘Any fence that will hold water, will hold hogs.’ Fences may be hog resistant, but they’re not hogproof.,” says Michael Bodenchuk, Texas State Director of Wildlife Services. Pigs are not a typical game as they are extremely intelligent.
Pigs are scavenging generalists, eating anything one can think of: trash, roots, insects, birds, reptiles, eggs, nuts, berries, etc. They leave their signatures with swaths of land being torn from the ground up like “living rototillers” says Craig Hicks, wildlife disease biologist in Ohio with the USDA Wildlife Services. Pools and slow moving water sources are reduced to muddy ditches once hogs wallow in them. The pigs pose a threat to native wildlife eaten or disturbed by swine. Feral pigs even compete with human beings over resources. “The biggest thing we’ve seen this year is crop damage to corn. It looks like a steamroller went through the property after they were done. They can level several bushels of corn in one night” according to Hicks. Pigs will eat just about any crop they encounter, and between property damage and product loss, it is estimated by the Department of Natural Resources that each hog averages $200 worth of damage a year.
The damage currently incurred by wild hogs now may even be considered favorable compared to the worst-case scenario. As the population grows, the chances of transmission of some costly diseases from pigs become more likely. “They can carry up to 30 different diseases and up to 37 different parasites that can affect people, pets, livestock, and wildlife. They threaten the commercial swine industry with possible disease incursions.” Some germs found in wild pigs like foot and mouth disease could kill a farmer’s cattle, pigs, horses, even his dog. Others pose a threat to human health, like swine brucellosis, pseudorabies, and leptospirosis. A feral hog is such a risky disease vector, that federal guidelines recommend a hunter bury gloves used to butcher the pig with its carcass, then immediately wash hands and exposed clothing. Hogs are so highly infectious, they contributed much to the Colombian exchange of microbes that left countless Native Americans dead.
So how can the pigs be combated? If recreational hunting kept the population in check, one might imagine the pigs would never had made it west of Texas. In terms of trapping, Sus scrofa is not to be underestimated. Baiting a sound of pigs into a trap can take between one and three weeks, and once trapped pigs do everything imaginable to escape; they’ve even been known to climb on each other to overcome gates. If a wild hog becomes trapped and lives to escape, the individual will never be coaxed back into one. In western states, an extermination technique known as ‘the Judas Pig’ is used where a wild pig is shot with a tracking device, hunters in a helicopter wait for the pig to return to its sound, and take aim en masse. This trick does not work in eastern states with tree canopies. Ohio’s hunting laws for wild pigs are liberal; they are always in season, no bag limit, and no weapons restrictions. Currently about sixteen counties in Ohio have documented feral pigs, thirteen of which are in the unglaciated Appalachian regions, five are the surrounding counties to Athens of Hocking, Vinton, Meigs, Washington, and Morgan counties. Rather than pushing into Ohio from established ranges, the pig population appear in isolated patches across the state. Where are the pigs coming from?
When looking for swine sources in these counties, game preserves seemed to consistently coexist with breakouts in wild hogs in the southeast. The extreme southwest populations may have something to due to proximity to Cincinnati, also known as ‘Porkopolis’ for its historical pork industry.