Hogs run wild
U.S. Rep. Conaway on wild hog population
America’s wild pig population is exploding and spreading across the country, more than doubling in size and range in the past 20 years.
Two decades ago, somewhere between 500,000 and 2 million wild pigs roamed the United States, according to Jack Mayer, a national expert on the problem.
Now the population numbers between 2 million and 6 million. In 1982, feral pigs were documented in 17 states. Today, they are found in 44.
Wildlife experts say the hogs, which can weigh as much as 500 to 750 pounds, are increasingly running roughshod in rural areas, suburbs and even a few cities, digging up cemeteries, gardens and lawns; causing car wrecks — and occasionally attacking people.
“They eat our crops. They root up our wetlands. They compete with our native species. They damage property. They run into our cars,” said Mayer, a scientist with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Savannah River National Laboratory in Aiken, S.C.
This year alone:
--- In Florida, a wild pig attacked a St. Petersburg woman in her backyard in April, goring her leg. In November, an Avon Park driver died when her sport-utility vehicle flipped after colliding with a wild hog.
--- In Detroit, a wild pig wandered through downtown in March, making its way to the home of a family in nearby Warren, Mich.
--- In September in a Redding, Calif.-area subdivision, an estimated 100 feral hogs tore out the landscaping and turned lawns into muddy messes.
But even though more cities and states are confronting the spread of the pigs, no national strategy or program exists to corral what is a cross-border problem.
Without federal intervention and enforcement of existing laws that limit transporting animals, the battle against the feral pigs — which each year cause an estimated $800 million in property and crop damage, and 27,000 auto collisions — could well be lost, Mayer and others say.
“Drive carefully, because if you run over one of them, you know, you won’t enjoy it,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, whose congressional district in western Texas is plagued with wild hogs.
Conaway has called for the pigs to be labeled as “predators,” allowing state funds to be spent hunting them.
The United States isn’t alone in grappling with a feral hog problem. Japan says herds of them are ripping up meadows in its northern mountains. In Ireland, the hogs have reappeared after an absence of hundreds of years. In Germany, where as many as 2.5 million wild hogs roam forests, fields and suburbs, recent news accounts report the animals have been chasing people up trees, invading living rooms and cornering four walkers in a Dumpster, where they had fled for safety.
Man is largely to blame for the wild-pig proliferation in North America.
First introduced to the continent by Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto in 1539, pigs commonly accompanied settlers to the New World, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Eurasian wild boar were introduced into the American wilderness beginning in about 1900. Today’s wild pig population is largely a combination of domestic pigs, Eurasian wild boar — or some hybrid blend of the two.
Popular as game animals, the pigs have for years been trucked from southern states like Texas and Florida, where wild hogs have been documented in every county, into backwoods areas several states away where they are let loose on private land for hunters to bag.
For sure, the pigs are affected by external factors. There are reports that feral hog populations are down this year in parts of California because of droughts and increased hunting.
But the pigs that aren’t killed by hunters don’t stay on private property. And because they are prolific breeders, the pigs go on the move to forage, and their territory increasingly intersects with expanding suburbs and other development.
Today, wild pigs are permanently established in 21 states including Florida, according to Mayer’s research. In another 12, the hog population is sizable, but can still be eradicated if action is taken soon. In 11, a hog or two has been spotted in one county or another — few enough for states to head off the pig infestation before it gets established.
Where the populations are smaller, human efforts can make a difference.
Carol Bannerman, of the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said that removal of pigs in Maryland in 2006 appears to have been successful through concerted trapping and killing.
But states such as Florida (where as many as 1 million wild hogs roam) and Texas (home to as many as 3 million) can attest to the trouble the pigs bring with them.
“They’re very voracious predators,” Mayer said. Along with plants, “they eat sheep, goats, cattle, chickens. People don’t usually associate wild pigs with being predators of large animals, but they are.”
And they’re ravenously hungry, which makes them disruptive to nature’s order.
In California’s Channel Islands, the pigs have affected the Island Fox, “hammering their numbers,” Mayer said.
In 2004, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classified Island Fox as endangered. To help the endangered species survive, hunters eradicated the wild pigs from the island in 2006.
Because the pigs also eat plants, they affect grasses, flowers and tree seedlings. In the Smoky Mountains not far from Knoxville, Tenn., wild pigs are dining their way through patches of Turk’s-cap lily — a species federal authorities say is endangered, threatened, and vulnerable in several eastern states.
The pigs also are carriers for disease — though not swine flu — and the pork industry has millions of dollars at stake if their livestock become infected.
Seth Swafford, who leads the Agriculture Department’s feral pig tracking efforts, said the animals mostly carry diseases that are transmitted to other pigs, including domestic animals.
The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, part of the agriculture department, examines up to 3,000 individual pigs across the nation for diseases annually. According to the service, there are more than 30 distinct diseases and viruses that can be transmitted by wild hogs to domestic swine or other livestock.
Swafford said the feral swine can transmit some diseases to humans, as well.
One of these diseases, Brucella suis, infected three people in 2008, all of whom were reported to have been hunting wild pigs, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Exacerbating the problem is the fact that many see the pigs as cute rather than as a nuisance.
There are federal rules on transporting the pigs — which are largely ignored — but there’s no national policy on hunting pigs, Mayer said.
Rather, the rules for killing wild pigs are governed by state hunting laws. Texas, an epicenter of feral swine, has been mulling a law change to allow the public to hunt pigs from aircraft. But some states, including Tennessee, only allow pig hunting during game season, Mayer said.
Conaway, the Texas congressman, said he doesn’t think more federal action is necessary.
“This isn’t ‘Animal Farm.’ Pigs aren’t going to take over,” Conaway said. “They’re not going to be running the world, and we will get a handle on this.”
Even if there were more federal attention, it’s not clear that it would make a difference in states with established populations, where efforts to thin the herds have been mostly unsuccessful.
There still would be no way to get rid of the larger populations — “even if you turned the U.S. Army loose” on them, said Joseph Corn, one of the leading researchers at the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study in Athens, Ga.