Revenge of the Pigs

How hunting makes the feral hog problem even worse.
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How hunting makes the feral hog problem even worse.
A pair of feral pigs on Merritt Island, Florida. (Photo: NASA/Public Domain)

A pair of feral pigs on Merritt Island, Florida. (Photo: NASA/Public Domain)

Earlier this year an Oklahoma man was charged with illegally handling and transporting feral hogs. His plan was to relocate pigs he had trapped in eastern Oklahoma to the state’s western panhandle in order to train his 40 pit bulls to hunt them. His strategy—a pump priming of sorts—involved locking hogs and dogs together in a trailer for a fight to the death.

Legally speaking, the problem had little to do with this crude training technique. Instead, what concerned state officials was the fact that the hogs had been moved to virgin territory. As it turns out, the hogs were infected with a virus and local ranchers, who hold particular disdain for feral hogs, feared cross-contamination on terra incognita.

When hunters arrive on the scene hogs know something’s up. They bolt in scattershot fashion and refuse to go gently. They will sprint, burrow, dodge, root, and swim (miles, if necessary) their way to the safety of a new environment.

Feral hogs wreak vast ecological and economic havoc throughout most of the United States. Initially introduced into Florida by Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto in 1539, old world domesticated hogs went feral and slowly colonized the Deep South. In the latter half of the 19th century, they bred with imported Eurasian boars that had escaped American hunting reserves. This genetic liaison resulted in an even more formidable beast.

Over the last 30 years their numbers exploded. In 1982, 18 states reported feral hogs; today, 40 of them do. Hogs have completely inundated Texas and California, two of the country’s agricultural sweet spots, and have even rooted their way into places as peripheral to their North American point of origin as Oregon and New Hampshire. They are breeding machines that move with the stealth of insects. Estimates suggest their current population is around six million.

Feral hogs’ capacity for destruction is hard to fathom. The United States Department of Agriculture reports that the swine cause $1.5 billion in damage annually, most of it suffered by farmers whose plants and animals are routinely churned into a porcine smorgasbord before the sun comes up (hogs do their work at night). Feral hogs are called “rototillers of nature” for good reason—they eat three to five percent of their weight every 24 hours. Ian Frazier, in a 2005 New Yorker feature article, deemed them “vacuum-cleaner bags attached to snouts.”

The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has finally taken notice. The division is scheduled to spend $20 million this year to control feral hogs. It is currently seeking suggestions from the public about how that might be done.

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The most difficult thing about feral hogs is that experts have no idea how to control them. A number of options have been on the table for decades; none have a proven track record. But this hasn’t dissuaded a vocal posse of citizenry from insisting that the best answer involves weaponry.

Hunters generally don’t need an excuse to hunt. But when they get one—especially one that’s greenwashed with a little environmental virtue—they seem especially gung ho to shoot their way toward relevance. Needless to say, their answer to the hog problem is as straightforward as the barrel of a .22: They strongly endorse an open season on hogs as a viable and long-term control tactic.

There’s a lot of anecdotal media support for the idea. Most notably, last year in Slate, Jackson Landers, hunting guru and author of a book called Eating Aliens, blended shotgun politics with frontier self-sufficiency to inspire a war on hogs. He wrote, “Invasive pigs are going to be removed only when people decide to take personal responsibility for the problem and go hunting.” He goaded readers: “Are there wild pigs near you? Are you up for joining the fight?”

The USDA reports that the swine cause $1.5 billion in damage annually, most of it suffered by farmers whose plants and animals are routinely churned into a porcine smorgasbord before the sun comes up.

Despite such a rousing paean to the crosshairs, hunting feral hogs is perhaps the worst way to control their numbers. Sure, it has occasionally worked. When populations are sparse and situated in relatively open space, hunters can make a dent in the numbers. New Mexico, for instance, has had some luck hunting feral hogs toward eradication. But, in most circumstances, hunting hogs isn’t just ineffective—in fact, it makes the problem worse.

Hogs are not only radically adaptive and prolifically reproductive, but they’re smart. When hunters arrive on the scene hogs know something’s up. They bolt in scattershot fashion and refuse to go gently. They will sprint, burrow, dodge, root, and swim (miles, if necessary) their way to the safety of a new environment in order to avoid the hunter’s bullet—or arrow, or dog, or helicopter.

And then they’ll settle down, destroy fresh crops and livestock, and breed like wildfire. To contain this hunter-induced-hog sprawl hunters would need to kill 70 percent of a given population at a given time. Not even Ted Nugent with a machine gun is that good (yes, he has tried).

For all the rhetoric that hunters spew about maintaining environmental balance, it has been the primal desire to shoot wild animals that has motivated their behavior. It’s worth recalling that the invasive hog problem hunters earnestly promised to solve was partially created by the hunters in the first place.

A feral hog on the Rio Vista Bluff Ranch in McFadden, Texas. (Photo: Fred LaBounty/Shutterstock)

A feral hog on the Rio Vista Bluff Ranch in McFadden, Texas. (Photo: Fred LaBounty/Shutterstock)

Hog populations have skyrocketed in the last few decades in large part because feral hogs have been trapped and moved to enclosed hunting preserves. This is done so weekend warriors can pay big bucks to play Davy Crockett. But the pigs aren’t thrilled with the arrangement. Capable of squeezing under fences with the agility of field mice, they routinely escape the game park, disappear into the surroundings, and dance their dance. This is most likely why New Hampshire and Pennsylvania have feral hogs.

Bottom line: Hunting hogs increases the hog population. “We’re not going to shoot or trap our way out of this, that’s just not going to happen,” John Mayer, perhaps the world’s leading expert on pig control, told Modern Farmer. So, then: What’s to be done about feral hogs?

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Experts speak with guarded optimism about the potential of contraceptives, which scientists are currently developing. But given that they don’t yet exist, and given that if they did exist we would have little sense of their long-term ecological impact, the best thing we can do at the moment is to put down the gun, step back from the problem, and think about how we got into this predicament to begin with.

Animals are feral because they were once domesticated. We call them “invasive” as if they fell from the sky, but in fact it is a more powerful invasive species—humans—that ultimately has to answer for their destruction.

A feral hog is the inevitable outcome of the unchecked pursuit of an agricultural system that requires humans to hack the genetics of another species to tame and fatten it into submission. Hunters will always hunt, but when the smoke clears all that will ever be left is a snout-nosed and highly intelligent reminder that the weakest often have better weapons.

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