JANET McCONNAUGHEY Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS — Eight years after the start of a U.S. program to combat feral damage, the invasive animals with big appetites and snouts that uproot anything that smells good are still a billion-dollar plague 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 in parts of the other 30.
But despite more than $100 million in federal funding, an estimated 6 to 9 million feral pigs still ravage landscapes across the country. They tear up planted fields and roll out huge bare hollows. They eat deer and turkey – and also eat turkey eggs and even fawns. They carry parasites and diseases and pollute streams and rivers with their feces.
Total damage in the US is estimated at at least $2.5 billion per year.
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Adam McLendon, whose family farms about 8,000 acres (3,200 hectares) of peanuts, corn and cotton in several counties in southwest Georgia, estimates that feral pigs have cost them more than $100,000 a year for the past 15 years.
That’s about the amount one of Mississippi’s two levee boards pays each year to capture and kill wild boar and repair damage caused by their roots, Commissioner Hank Burdine estimated. “That’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, hogs are taking so much corn that Layne Chapman and his neighbors don’t even bother trying to grow corn.
“I can 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 pigs.’ That was in 2006,” Chapman said. In 2016 he stopped growing corn.
The animals tear up rows of newly planted peanuts and corn, leaving huge furrows that must be smoothed before the field can be replanted – weeks after prime planting time. Pigs return to the cornfields as the crops ripen, stamping on stalks, biting their ears and wallowing to cool their sweatless bodies.
The US Department of Agriculture’s National Feral Swine Damage Management Program has received $31.5 million since it began 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 less than $75 million eradication pilot projects approved by Congress in the 2018 Farm Bill were assigned separately.
Research also continues to poison wild boar without killing other animals, said Michael Marlow, deputy manager of the USDA program. The poison sodium nitrite is a preservative in bacon but prevents the blood of live pigs from carrying oxygen.
Trials this coming winter and spring will test whether birds can be kept away from dropped baits by using a less crumbly formulation, along with screens to keep crumbs out of reach and air-powered “scarymen” such as air dancers used for in-store advertising used, Marlow said.
But right now, two main methods of control are aerial photography and remote-controlled traps that send cellphone pictures if there’s a hog plumb inside.
Some states have legalized night hunting of wild boar. Derek Chisum, who grows peanuts, cotton and wheat in Hydro, Oklahoma, estimates he’s killed 120 to 150 every year since Oklahoma did it three years ago.
Since 2014, Idaho, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Maine, Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota, Washington, Wisconsin, and Vermont have all killed their small populations of feral pigs, although the program is still vigilant in the last six states.
The worst-hit states — California, Oklahoma, Texas and Florida, where an F-16 fighter jet was totaled in a runway collision with two wild boar in 1988 — are still at the program’s highest, with more than 750,000 hogs. Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina put their populations at between 100,000 and 750,000, although Hawaii is down a notch.
Texas’ total population has been “fairly stable” at about 3 million as of 2011, said Mike Bodenchuk, state director of the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).
But nationwide reduction, let alone eradication, will likely be a long drudgery with the tools and funds now available, he said in a phone interview.
That means killing a lot of pigs, although a commonly repeated figure — that pigs are so productive that 70% of them have to be killed in a given area each year to keep the number stable — just isn’t accurate, Kim Pepin said . 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 in different environments, Pepin said. “If you want to know the growth rates, you have to monitor them,” she said.
In Texas, the four-county Upper Red River Watershed project and other intensive efforts funded by the Farm Bill have left a significant dent in target areas, Bodenchuk said. But these only cover 16 of the state’s 254 counties.
The bill will pay for 34 eradication projects in delimited areas of a dozen states.
In Texas, APHIS is targeting areas with the worst damage, teaching landowners how to continue the work after the Farm Bill projects end in 2023, and providing resources like loaner traps — $7,000 or more each — to help “As we move the program across the landscape,” Bodenchuck said.
“Even with this approach, we will not have the resources to eradicate hogs 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 $1 billion more than the 2014 estimate, and the number of hogs is now estimated at 6 to 9 million instead of 5 million.
But those don’t indicate actual increases, said Marlow, the country’s deputy program manager. “I think we just have a better handle on it,” he said.
The agency has conducted investigations to improve damage estimates, but they’re still limited — such as damage to six top crops in 11 states. And the numbers are likely low, leaving out costs like extra time and fuel needed to harvest hog-damaged fields, said Sophie McKee, an economist at the wildlife research center where Pepin works.
When a small group of farmers and ranchers were asked to consider those costs, their damage estimates nearly tripled, McKee said.
Red River farmer Chapman said such costs are difficult to estimate. For example, if pigs burrow on the low side of an irrigated farm, “it will never drain again,” he said.