The fight against an escalating wild pig population is nothing new.
Many states are struggling with the rampant spread of feral hog-related problems and a few are considering drastic measures to control an escalating problem that threatens to bring serious economic hardships, a potential for uncontrolled spread of animal diseases and even a threat to human safety.
But thanks in part to a new method of addressing the growing feral swine problem, wildlife officials, representatives of agriculture, and educators from land-grant universities are teaming up to share information and developing strategies that may one day lead to adequate control.
What is being termed a “Feral Hog Community of Practice” is a resource area of various experts focusing on the control, adaptive management, biology, economics, disease risks and human interface with feral hogs in the U.S. and around the globe.
A community of practice is not merely a club of friends or a network of connections between people, but a group of professionals with an identity defined by a shared domain of interest. Membership, therefore, implies a commitment to the shared topic — in this case the developing feral pig problem.
In recent years, the subject of wild pig damage has come before many state and federal lawmakers. Agricultural producers who have felt the harsh impacts of feral hogs, and wildlife experts who understand the ecological ramifications of the species, have testified at House and Senate Agricultural Committee hearings warning of the risks and dangers the problem poses to both industry and the environment.
These professionals say they want and need more funding for better management and control initiatives. In such hard-hit states as Texas with estimates of feral hog populations greater than two million, state legislators have made additional funding available, but many say the funding is too little and too late.
Big problem worldwide
The problem may be bigger than anyone imagined. While the U.S. struggles with a feral hog issue, around the globe the problem also continues to grow with some nations using extensive control methods once considered far too radical for domestic use.
For example, Australia, New Zealand and Pakistan are using toxicants to control wild herds of swine. Chemical control includes the use of warfarin (Australia), cyanide and cholecalciferol (New Zealand) and zinc phosphide (Pakistan).
While most consider toxicants too risky in the U.S., opinion may slowly be changing as ramped up efforts to control feral hog problems domestically through hunting and trapping methods are being countered by the apparent resiliency of the species to survive even human intervention.
Free-ranging populations of feral swine in the U.S. are located in at least 35 states. Some experts estimate their numbers at more than 5 million, with the largest populations located in California, Florida, Oklahoma, and Texas.
This species causes extensive damage to public property and disease threats to native ecosystems, livestock, and humans. Feral swine populations are expected to spread across the country as a result of natural range expansion, illegal trapping and movement by hunters, and accidental releases from domestic swine operations.
The expanding populations of feral swine are a significant concern to farmers, livestock producers, natural resource managers, and animal health officials. However, feral swine issues are not limited to natural areas and rural environments. Feral swine are highly adaptable and are becoming more common in suburban areas, rooting up lawns, gardens, golf courses, and city parks.
The cost of feral swine damage
It is estimated that feral swine in the U.S. cause more than $1 billion in damages and control costs each year. For example, rooting and wallowing activities cause property damage and erosion to river banks.
Feral swine eat and destroy field crops such as corn, milo, rice, watermelon, spinach, peanuts, hay, turf, and wheat. They are also efficient predators and, when given the opportunity, prey upon young livestock and other small animals, such as ground-nesting birds.
In addition, their rooting activities allow invasive plants to re-vegetate damaged areas, reducing native plants and grasses. Their wallowing activities can contaminate water supplies and affect water quality.
These animals have also been known to destroy livestock and game fences and consume livestock feed, minerals, and protein supplements.
Though a rare occurrence, feral swine can directly infect people with diseases. For example, brucellosis (or undulant fever) can be transmitted to people when blood or other body fluid from an infected animal comes into contact with a person’s eyes, nose, mouth, or an open wound.
Feral swine can also carry harmful organisms and diseases such as toxoplasmosis, tularemia, trichinellosis, swine influenza, salmonella,E. coli, and a variety of bacterial diseases that can cause sickness and, in some cases, death to people who consume contaminated food products.
Pseudorabies can be transmitted from feral swine to some pets, such as dogs and cats, as well as cattle, sheep, and goats. Signs of illness include intense itching often followed by paralysis and death.
Contact your veterinarian if your pets or livestock come in contact with feral swine and show any of the following clinical signs:
• Sudden change in behavior;
• Excessive salivation;
• Difficulty breathing;
• Depression/reluctance to move;
• Difficult walking/poor coordination;
• Intense itching or self mutilation;
• Sudden death.
In addition to the risks of disease, experts estimate the annual agricultural damage from feral swine to be in excess of $52 million. On top of that landowner annual expense to control feral hogs exceeds $7 million.
But of most concern perhaps is the rapid propagation of the feral hog population.
The natural life expectancy of a free roaming swine ranges between 6 to 8 years. A sow reaches breeding age at 7 to 8 months and can be responsible for large numbers of offspring in a 5-year period.
The average size of feral hogs ranges between 100 and 150 pounds, but, depending on the region, some suggest feral hogs can weigh in excess of 500 pounds. In Texas, the average feral hog weighs less than 200 pounds.