posted on January 24, 2005 00:00
Hog Control A Growing Challenge For Public Land Managers
Hunters Are Helping Control One Of Missouri's Most Destructive Pests
JEFFERSON CITY-The phrase "hog wild" has taken on new meaning for managers of public land in Missouri over the past decade. In that time, feral hogs have gone from a rare novelty to an epidemic. Hunters provide a bright spot in the picture, but even their help is a mixed blessing.
At first glance, the presence of a few escaped pigs on conservation areas, national forest and around U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reservoirs doesn't seem like much of a problem. But as Missourians increasingly experience wild hogs firsthand, worries multiply.
State officials have been concerned about feral hogs for at least 12 years. In 1992, the Missouri Department of Agriculture (MDA) imposed a quarantine on several thousand acres in Carter, Shannon, Oregon and Ripley counties after feral hogs in the area were found to have pseudorabies.
Wild hogs can carry the pseudorabies virus without serious symptoms, but the disease is fatal to many other wild and domestic animals. A team effort by the Missouri Department of Conservation and the USDA Forest Service succeeded in eradicating hogs in the quarantine area. However, in recent years feral hogs have cropped up in several other areas.
"The appearance of feral hogs in Missouri is no accident," said Conservation Department Private Land Field Programs Supervisor Rex Martensen. "Misguided people continue to bring various kinds of wild hogs into the state for hunting. If they had any idea of the destruction they are creating, I don't think most of them would be doing it."
Martensen said feral hogs' destructiveness takes several forms:
Livestock damage -- Besides pseudorabies, feral hogs carry leptospirosis and swine brucellosis, potentially devastating diseases of domestic swine.
Crop damage -- Feral hogs feed by rooting in the ground and can plow up acres of crop fields in a single night, destroying crops.
Human health risks -- Swine brucellosis can infect humans, causing undulant fever. This can lead to arthritis, urinary inflammation, meningitis, heart inflammation and depression.
Ecological damage -- Feral hogs damage native plants and wildlife by rooting up roots and eating anything they can catch, including quail and turkey nests and young mammals, including deer fawns. Indirect damage includes competition for food, such as acorns, and erosion that takes place after hogs root up large tracts of ground. Feral hogs seek out springs, seeps and fens destroying ground cover and contaminating streams with their feces.
The growing number of feral hog release sites concerns conservation and agriculture officials.
"We are beginning to find feral hogs in northern Missouri for the first time," said Martensen. "That is bad news for conservation areas and farms."
Missouri has not had a case yet where feral hogs infected domestic hogs in a confined feeding operation with brucellosis. If that happened, thousands of domestic animals would have to be destroyed, and the cost of the feral hog problem would jump by several million dollars overnight. The state could come under a quarantine that would devastate the pork industry here.
"I don't think anyone wants to be responsible for that, and I sure wouldn't want to be one of them when investigators go looking for the source of the feral hogs," said Martensen.
The hogs turning up in Missouri's wild places aren't garden-variety domestic swine. Rangy and streetwise, these animals are the descendants of wild "razorback" pigs or Russian boars. The average feral hog weighs less than 100 pounds, but they can grow to more than 500 pounds. Even domestic pigs will revert to wild type when living wild.
Feral hogs know how to survive in the wild and aren't easily intimidated, even by hunters. The Conservation Department advises hunters pursuing feral hogs to use high-powered, repeating rifles or shotguns, so as not to become the hunted.
"Several hunters have been treed by hogs," said Martensen. "These animals can be very dangerous. The adults are especially dangerous when they are with their young."
The Conservation Department isn't the only agency that has a problem with feral hogs. They complicate the job of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages land around its reservoirs for recreational hunting, fishing, hiking and other nature-related recreation. At Lake Wappapello, feral hogs have become such a problem that the Corps coordinates hunting efforts.
Lake Wappapello Manager Gary Stilts said his office tracks feral hogs' activity by field observations and reports from hunters. When someone calls to ask about hunting feral hogs, he gets a rundown on area hunting rules and a map of hog activity hot spots.
"Since we started this big push to get rid of feral hogs, we have been getting 10 to 15 calls a day from hunters," said Stilts. "I have had reports of people killing six, 12 and 13 a day, and those aren't just verbal reports. They have photos to prove it."
Hunters can't possibly kill too many hogs for Stilts' taste. He said he has seen 20-acre expanses of permittee farmers' crops rooted up on Corps land. Hogs have destroyed all the agency's wildlife food plots this year. He said he doesn't know if hunting alone can eliminate the problem. He will be content if hunters can kill 70 percent of the hogs annually--enough to hold hog numbers at their current level.
The USDA Forest Service, Mark Twain National Forest, has more than 1.5 million mostly forested acres in Missouri and has had similar experiences with feral hogs. Forest Service Biologist Larry Furniss said the number of hogs in the Mark Twain National Forest definitely is increasing, even with hunters' help.
"Hunting is the only reason we have hundreds of hogs on the Mark Twain Forest rather than thousands," said Furniss. "When we find a hot spot, we try to direct hunters to that area. When hunters get the population down to eight or 10 feral hogs, we call in APHIS (the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) to trap the rest."
Hunting is a two-edged sword, however. As feral hogs have grown more common, cottage industries have developed to provide guide service and hunting dogs for hunters. This creates an incentive for bringing in more hogs. Neither the Forest Service nor the Conservation Department allows commercial guides to operate on their land without special permits.
Continued releases of feral hogs make the goal of eradication elusive. Biologists say they have seen new populations of hogs at Lake Wappapello, Pomme De Terre Lake, Fort Leonard Wood, Johnson's Shut-Ins State Park, Table Rock Lake and even north of the Missouri River in recent years. The animals now are found in at least 14 Missouri counties.
Releasing feral hogs into the wild is illegal. State and federal agencies have had some success finding those who do so. MDA officials use records of legally imported Russian and European hogs to check on where those animals go. Most end up in fenced hunting preserves, but some find their way into the wild. When MDA discovers that hogs are being released, it works with law enforcement officers in other state and federal agencies to stop it.
"I am really concerned about hogs being captured in the wild and moved to new locations," said MDA's Ed Gladden. "For us, it is a security and disease prevention issue for the domestic swine herd. Feral hogs in Arkansas have some disease problems, and that's pretty close to home.
"In many cases, the people doing it are just naïve about the law. Some of them actually think they are doing a service. It's critical to get out the message that releasing feral hogs is illegal and could have disastrous results."
Gladden said he is encouraged by the cooperation MDA is getting from the Department of Conservation, the Forest Service, the Corps of Engineers and other agencies in combating feral hogs. "This makes it much easier to accomplish something when we find a problem."
The Conservation Department defines a feral hog as any hog, including a Russian and European wild boar, that is not conspicuously identified by ear tags or other forms of identification and is roaming freely on public or private land without the landowner's permission. Hunters are encouraged to kill such hogs on sight, but must still observe state and local hunting regulations. Check state and area regulations or call a conservation agent for local information.
For more information about hunting feral hogs at Lake Wappapello, call 573/222-8562.
More information about feral hogs on the Mark Twain National Forest is available by calling 573/364-4621.
The Conservation Department asks hunters to report feral hog sightings and kills by calling 573/522-4115, ext. 3147. More information about feral hogs is available at the Conservation Department's web site, www.missouriconservation.org. Click on "Hunting and Trapping" and then on "Feral Hogs."