NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Eight years after a U.S. program began to control damage from feral hogs, invasive animals with big appetites and snouts that uproot anything that smells good are still a multi-billion dollar blight on farmers, wildlife and the environment.
These prolific feral pigs were wiped out in 11 of the 41 states where they were reported in 2014 or 2015, and there are fewer of them in parts of the other 30.
But despite more than $100 million in federal money, an estimated 6 to 9 million feral hogs are still ravaging the landscape nationwide. They tear up planted fields, wallowing in huge bare depressions. They eat more deer and turkeys – and also eat turkey eggs and even fawns. They carry parasites and diseases and pollute streams and rivers with their droppings.
Total damage in the United States is estimated at a minimum of $2.5 billion per year.
Adam McLendon, whose family farms about 8,000 acres (3,200 hectares) of peanuts, corn and cotton in several southwestern Georgia counties, estimates the feral pigs have cost them more than $100,000 per year over the past 15 years.
That’s about what one of Mississippi’s two levee boards pays each year to trap and kill feral hogs and repair damage caused by their rooting, commissioner Hank Burdine estimated. “It’s nominal compared to what we would have if we didn’t take care of it and had a flood,” he added.
Near the Red River in North Texas, the hogs are so hard on corn that Layne Chapman and his neighbors don’t even try to grow any more.
“I remember the first day someone called me and said, ‘You have a pig in your wheat field’, and I said, ‘No, we don’t have any pigs. It was 2006,” Chapman said. He stopped planting maize in 2016.
Animals tear up rows of freshly planted peanuts and maize, leaving huge ruts that must be smoothed out before the field can be replanted – weeks after the best planting time. Pigs return to the cornfields when the crop ripens, trampling the stalks, biting their ears and wallowing to cool their bodies without sweating.
United States Department of Agriculture’s National Feral Swine Damage Management Program has received $31.5 million since its launch in 2014.
McLendon and Chapman, who continue to grow cotton and wheat and raise cattle on about 8,000 acres (3,200 hectares) in Vernon, Texas, have both benefited from eradication pilots of less than $75 million of dollars separately allocated by Congress in the 2018 Farm Bill.
Research is also continuing on ways to poison feral pigs without killing other animals, said Michael Marlow, USDA deputy program director. The poison, sodium nitrite, is a preservative in bacon but prevents the blood of live pigs from carrying oxygen.
Trials next winter and spring will test whether birds can be kept away from dropped baits by using a less crumbly formulation, as well as grids to keep crumbs out of reach and “scares” at compressed air like the aerial dancers used for in-store advertising, Marlow said. .
But for now, the two main control methods are aerial shots and remote-controlled traps that send cellphone images when a hog sounder is inside.
Some states have legalized nighttime feral hog hunting. Derek Chisum, who grows peanuts, cotton and wheat in Hydro, Oklahoma, estimates he’s killed 120 to 150 a year since Oklahoma killed him three years ago.
Since 2014, Idaho, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Maine, Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota, Washington, Wisconsin and Vermont have killed off their small populations of feral pigs, although the program always keeps a close eye on the last six states. .
The hardest hit states – California, Oklahoma, Texas and Florida, where a trackside collision with a pair of feral pigs totaled an F-16 fighter jet in 1988 – are still at the program’s highest level, with over 750,000 hogs. Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina place their populations between 100,000 and 750,000, although Hawaii went down one level.
The population of Texas as a whole has been “pretty stable” at around 3 million since 2011, said Mike Bodenchuk, state director of the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, or APHIS.
But statewide reduction, let alone eradication, will likely be a long job with the tools and money available now, he said in a phone interview.
This means killing lots of pigs, although a widely repeated figure – that pigs are so prolific that 70% of those in a given area must be killed each year to keep their numbers stable – is simply not correct, said Kim Pepin, a research biologist at the USDA’s National Wildlife Research Center in Fort Collins, Colorado.
To reduce populations, all you have to do is kill more than are born each year — and growth rates vary between environments, Pepin said. “If you want to know growth rates, you have to track,” she said.
In Texas, the Upper Red River Watershed Project in four counties and other intensive efforts paid for by the Farm Bill have made a significant dent in target areas, Bodenchuk said. But these only cover 16 of the state’s 254 counties.
The bill pays for 34 eradication projects in limited areas of a dozen states.
In Texas, APHIS targets the most damaged areas, teaches landowners how to continue work after Farm Bill projects end in 2023, and leaves resources such as loan traps — each $7,000 or more — for help “as we move the program across the landscape,” Bodenchuck said.
“Even using this approach, we won’t have the resources to eradicate pigs in Texas in my lifetime,” he wrote in an email.
Researchers are still trying to get good numbers for populations and damage. The current estimate of at least $2.5 billion in annual national damage is up $1 billion from the 2014 estimate, and the number of pigs is now estimated to be between 6 and 9 million instead of 5 million.
But these do not indicate real increases, said Marlow, the national program’s deputy director. “I think we just have a better grip,” he said.
The agency has conducted surveys to improve damage estimates, but they are still limited, such as damage to six major crops in 11 states. And the numbers are likely low, not counting costs such as extra time and fuel needed to harvest hog-damaged fields, said Sophie McKee, research economist at the wildlife research center where Pepin works.
When a small group of farmers and ranchers were asked to consider these costs, their damage estimates nearly tripled, McKee said.
Chapman, the Red River farmer, said such costs can be difficult to assess. For example, he said, if pigs take root in the bottom of an irrigated farm, “it will never drain again.”
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