‘If a fence won’t hold water, it won’t hold a wild pig.’
“The biggest challenge is to get people to take this seriously,” says John Mayer of Savannah River National Laboratory, one of the world’s foremost wild pig authorities. “You start talking about this and people go ‘Come on, you’re kidding me, wild pigs?!’”
But the issue is as serious as swine flu, with a global explosion of wild pigs destroying natural ecosystems, spreading disease, causing a billion dollars in agricultural damage, and proving themselves nearly impossible to combat.
For those working in the field, educating farmers, foresters and land-owners on how to stave off pigs has become a cottage industry. At a standing-room only wild-pig management conference in December, Bronson Strickland, a coordinator of the Mississippi State University’s Center for Resolving Human-Wildlife Conflicts, was charged with educating the masses. Bald as a baby, with a soft Southern drawl and the righteous urgency of Al Gore, Strickland offered scant reassurance.
“We have a really, really big problem here, and we don’t have the answers,” Strickland called out to the restless, murmuring crowd. “We’re in for a fight.”
The exploding pig population has different roots in different parts of the world, but in the United States, the porcine problem is a fairly recent phenomenon. European Wild Boars were introduced here between the mid-1800s and the early 1900s (opinions vary). Wild pigs then maintained a steady, static presence for decades.
Mayer says all that changed in 1989, the year American sportsmen developed appetites for the wild pig. Scattered populations had long dotted the Southeast, but scofflaw hunters (one attendee at Strickland’s conference called them “dumb bubbas”) started trucking wild pigs all over the vast American countryside.
The ’80s also saw the emergence of commercial “fence shooting” operations. Nationwide, wild pigs were set loose in vast, fenced-in compounds, like fish in a barrel. Landowners would charge big bucks for hunters to shoot at the supposedly trapped beasts. But wild pigs soon started leaking through the fences, like velociraptors from Jurassic Park. As Strickland noted, echoing a Texas colleague, there is truth to the phrase “if a fence won’t hold water, it won’t hold a wild pig.”
Between fence escapes and illegal pig transport, the growth trajectory was sharp. Twenty-five years ago, spotty wild pig pockets were found in fewer than 20 different states. Now, they’re in 47 states, with Florida, Texas, and a few others approaching crisis levels.
In France and Germany, some researchers blame it on the introduction of farmed corn as biofuel – much less corn was grown there in the past – giving easy sustenance to the roving pig. In the West Bank, it’s been attributed to artificial introduction of wild pigs by Israeli settlers. In colder countries, global warming has been linked to increased pigs, as feral babies are more likely to survive milder winters.
But despite different causes, much of the world is suffering from similar effects. Mayer and his colleagues call it the “Pig Bomb.”
Wild pigs stick to one area until all food sources are tapped out. Their method of “rooting up” buried treasures (roots, acorns and the like) creates large swaths of cratered, barren terrain. The scorched earth is then abandoned in the hunt for another food source.
This voraciousness is problematic for many reasons – destruction of natural ecosystems, choking out native species – but none is more prevalent than decimated crops. Harvests of corn, rice, soybeans, and even cotton have been wiped out by roving boars. Of the approximate $1 billion in wild boar damage across the U.S. each year (a figure Strickland calls a “gross underestimate”), a majority is chalked up to agriculture.
There’s also a disease element to consider. Wild pigs are known carriers of at least 45 different parasites, some obscure and some familiar. Remember the batch of California spinach that killed three people and sickened hundreds more? The federal government named wild pig droppings as a possible culprit. Salmonella, hoof-and-mouth, and other nightly-news panic inducers find easy transport in pigs.
It doesn’t help that wild pigs are one of those non-native species that happily reproduce without natural checks and balances. Females can breed up to twice yearly, often with litters of six to eight. Compare this to white-tailed deer – another mammal wearing the mantel of “nuisance wildlife” – that produce at most two or three fawns a year.
Out of each litter, four or five piglets will likely survive to adulthood. That’s a crucial age marker; once a wild pig is full-grown, it is invulnerable to almost all forms of predators – angry alligators being one possible exception. This leaves adult boars largely free to do what they love – eating, and searching out new places to eat. They consume virtually anything (“opportunistic omnivores” is the official label), and can live virtually anywhere. At Strickland’s seminar, he showed a slide of wild-eyed boars cavorting everywhere from remote snowy woodlands to a sunny beach, with humans sunbathing in the distance. It could bear the caption “Next Up: Your Backyard.”
They’re gaining a half million acres per year in Mississippi. They’ve gone from zero presence in Michigan to 73 out of 83 counties (at last count). Nearly every day calls come in from previously pig-free terrain. Strickland, a man not prone to fits of high drama, has a dire assessment: “It’s all bad news.”
Hunting for a Fix
The scariest part of the pig tidal wave? The best minds in science and wildlife management can’t come up with a comprehensive solution.
Armchair observers love to offer up the obvious fix to the boar problem: increased hunting. Similar to overpopulated deer, why don’t we just make it wild pig season all the time?
If you shoot a wild pig, use a large caliber and know where to aim. A wounded wild pig isn’t something you want to wrangle with.
For one thing, pigs are much tougher targets than deer. Preternaturally smart (they’ve been called “dolphins of the land”) and fearful of humans, trying to get a bead on one can be an all-day affair. And if you do shoot a wild pig, you best use a high caliber and know where to aim. Their tough hides and thick skulls provide natural shielding that can be quite challenging to pierce. And a wounded wild pig isn’t something you want to wrangle with.
Outside the inherent difficulties with hunting, consider this counterintuitive thought: legalized hunting is tied to increased wild pig populations. As we’ve seen for the past two decades, hunting incentivizes the very behavior which caused the pig bomb.
Targeted hunting from helicopters – dubbed “pork choppers” in Texas – has proven more efficient, but it’s incredibly costly. And again, pigs have shown themselves to be quick studies; Mayer said many will hit deep cover at the first sound of a chopper, not emerging until all danger has passed. (Hence the need for pig drones.)
At the Mississippi conference, Strickland encouraged landowners to set up traps on their property. Using carrion, grains, or overripe veggies as bait, trapping can eliminate more pigs than one-at-a-time rifle hunting.
The problem is, wild pigs are wary, and they learn fast. It typically takes a couple weeks of enticement just to lure new pigs in. And once they’re caught, their free brethren are unlikely to make the same mistakes.
And while traps may be more effective than hunting, they still can’t keep up with the population explosion. “We’re not going to shoot or trap our way out of this, that’s just not going to happen,” said Mayer. “Lethal removal just doesn’t take the numbers that you need to control the population.”
At this point, most wildlife scientists are resting their hopes on lethal toxins and/or contraception. Multiple labs across the U.S. are currently working on developing poisons and birth controls that could be distributed through bait. The trick, of course, is not to cause collateral damage to other fauna.
While it may be difficult to design 100 percent pig-specific chemicals, scientists may be able to devise a delivery system that only wild pigs can access. Still, what happens when a black bear eats a pig that was killed by toxins, or when a human eats a wild boar that ingested contraceptives?
“I’m not sure America has really warmed to poisoning our wildlife,” Mayer quips.
At the Mississippi event, the mood was uneasy. John Compton, whose family owns more than 1,000 acres in Clarke County, Mississippi, has wild pigs on “just about every acre” of his property. He had tried different kinds of traps, with little success; on his way out of the conference, he purchased an antiquated-looking Hold-a-Hawg snare trap. “You gotta do something,” Compton said, shaking his head.
Strickland agrees, noting that nearly 75 percent of his job is dealing with wild pigs (he’s supposed to be a wildlife generalist). He fields calls from farmers with decimated crops, suburbanites with pigs in their backyards, golf courses with destroyed terrain.
In as little as 10 years, if wild pigs continue their exponential growth pattern, Strickland sees the potential for catastrophe on a grand scale. His best-case scenario would be holding populations at current levels. And even this goal requires eliminating 50 to 60 percent of existing wild pigs annually, from now until forever.
The only upside, perhaps, is the commerce spurred by wild pigs. Think of the secondary markets: there’s commercial trap makers, vendors of pig decoys and bottled urine (it lures them in), helicopter operations charging upwards of $1,000 to let you hunt pigs from above, and of course, all the restaurants and gourmet shops doing a brisk business in boar meat.
When told of the prices that wild boar meet can fetch at upscale urban restaurants, Strickland snickered. “I don’t think you would ever get it for that price in Mississippi,” he said,
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