Super Pig, Super Problems
In the escalating battle against feral hogs, strategy makes all the difference.
One feral pig is capable of doing $200 in crop damages every year. Photo courtesy of the Noble Research Institute, LLC.
Bad news, people. Those crop-robbing, denizens of destruction are getting smarter. That’s all well and good for Oklahoma’s growing populous of increasingly wily feral pigs; bad for everything else. From the quality of our waterways to the well-being of our livestock, crops, native wildlife and plants, pets and people, feral hogs pose a serious threat that should have all Oklahomans on alert.
How Bad Is It?
The USDA Wildlife Services Agency estimates from 1 to 1.6 million feral hogs roam the state. Since the late 1970s when they first crossed the Red River into southeast Oklahoma, their numbers have grown at an alarming rate. Left unchecked, experts claim one sow, two piglets and their offspring are capable of producing some 122,000 pigs in 20 years. Today, feral swine are found in 73 counties, their spread aided by hunters and well-intentioned landowners who, for profit or enjoyment, thought it might be fun to have a few wild pigs. Carriers of 17 infectious diseases including brucellosis, swine fever, foot and mouth disease, leptospirosis, pseudorabies, and bubonic plague, feral swine are now a national grievance roving 39 states. Their rooting and raiding costs ag producers more than $1.5 billion in crop damage every year. Because crop insurance only covers natural disasters, the toll for pig devastation comes from individual farmers.
“Unfortunately, feral pigs are a manmade problem and a perfect example of what happens when a non-native species is released in the wild without careful thought to the long-term consequences,” says Josh Gaskamp, wildlife and range consultant for the Noble Research Institute.
Calling feral swine “an ecological train wreck,” Gaskamp blames the animal’s sprawl on the illegal release of pigs, plus a killer combo of natural species traits enhanced by human engineering. As Gaskamp explains, domestic and feral pigs are the same species as the Eurasian wild boar that arrived in North America with Spanish explorers more than 500 years ago. With time and selective breeding, ag producers built a better pig with specific characteristics deemed favorable for the pork market. At the top of the list: rapid growth and prolific reproduction.
“Then we turned it loose on the landscape to become the feral hog,” he says. “Now we have a super pig roaming around out there compared to the original Eurasian wild boar.”
Today’s wild pig can breed at six months of age and raise two litters of five to six piglets per litter every year. Traveling in groups known as sounders, feral swine adapt quickly to varying habitats and eat almost anything—acorns, roots, corn, melons, grubs, snakes, quail and turkey eggs, and occasionally lambs, fauns, and calves. The pig’s supernatural sense of smell and high IQ make it increasingly wary and challenging to hunt or trap.
A Better Battle Strategy
On the front lines of the feral pig battle is the USDA Wildlife Services Agency. Scott Alls, agency director, says Oklahoma’s wild pig problem now ranks second in the nation behind Texas. At the very least, the odious designation qualifies the state for a slightly larger slice of a $30.5 million federal allocation for feral pigs. The 2018 Farm Bill includes an additional $75 million to help farmers with control and damages, but how the money will be divided has not been announced.
At this point, experts say merely preventing pig numbers from increasing will require removing 70 percent of the population every year. Last year, the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry projected an estimated removal of 45,000 feral hogs using traps, aerial gunning, and hunting. Research on sterilization is underway but could take years to perfect. There’s no magic bullet, Alls admits, but modern trap designs that allow users to monitor and activate the trap electronically using a mobile phone offer some glimmer of hope.
He urges landowners to invest in better traps and exercise the patience necessary to condition pigs to feed inside it, so the entire sounder is captured. In the meantime, Alls adds, “Quit shooting at them, quit dogging and harassing them because it only makes them harder to trap.”
The best strategy? Alls recommends landowners form regional networks dedicated to pig removal. Recent attempts to trap pigs near Arcadia, Oklahoma, failed because many residents in the area enjoy feeding the deer. Rather than enter the traps for a meal, the pigs opted for less hazardous dining down the road.
“If one landowner is is trying to get rid of pigs, but the guy next door is more interested in keeping a few around to hunt, you’re not going to put a dent in the population,” he says. “Get your neighbors on board and you can start making more of a difference.”