North Carolina faces same problem as many states: wild hogs
Princeton, N.C. (AP) – Oklahoma just called in the GPS-equipped Judas pigs, which lead hunters to their unsuspecting friends. Texans started gunning down wild hogs from helicopters last year. South Carolina legislators have drafted a bill that allows hunting with night-vision devices.
And wildlife officials in North Carolina have endorsed hunting wild pigs after dark without a license. That's on top of a $5,000-per-pig fine approved last year to prevent hunters from transporting wild hogs and a nuisance designation that made feral swine easier to hunt or trap.
Much of the nation is now losing a brutal, few-holds-barred war with an exploding population of millions of feral hogs, and North Carolina is on the front line, with acres of field crops and delicate wildlife habitat being destroyed daily and the $1.5 billion pork industry at risk. Scientists say all the new laws popping up around the country aren't likely to stop the expansion of the pig population that's chomping and rooting up pretty much everything in its path.
"I wouldn't wish this on anybody,'' Johnston County farmer Frank Baumgartner said while standing in a wheat field where wild pigs had flattened at least a dozen house-sized patches of stalks while eating and simply rolling around.
"They tear down even more than they eat, and they eat plenty,'' he said.
For decades, Johnston County had one of the few significant wild pig populations east of the mountains and Baumgartner said his father-in-law hunted them and thought it great sport. In the past six years, though, the fun has gone out of it as pig herds – called sounders – have started swarming out of the swampy woods into his peanut, wheat and corn fields, attacking at least once a week.
Sometimes it seems like he spends about as much time tending to pigs as he does crops, checking his pig traps almost daily, and moving some of the traps around, because pig herds react to trapping and hunting by moving somewhere safer.
Then, when he catches pigs, up to a dozen at a time, he has to shoot them and either give them away to friends or his laborers or, when they're too old and rank to eat, he pulls on rubber gloves and drags them off to bury.
His pig harvest in 2010 was about 50. Last year it was 91.
"It's an ongoing problem almost every day,'' Baumgartner said. "They're just everywhere now. We trap 'em, we shoot 'em, we've got other people hunting them, and they keep coming.''
And not just in Johnston County. In 2006, there were confirmed populations of feral pigs in 54 of the state's 100 counties; the count has now swelled to 88 counties, said Tom Ray, director of Livestock Health Programs for the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Ray has been tracking the expansion as best he can. The animals are notoriously difficult to tally, but he said there is no question that the population here is at least in the tens of thousands.
Nationally, estimates range to 5 million, and the wild pigs have spread from 17 states in 1982 to 37, said Joseph Corn of the Southern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study at the University of Georgia, which tracks the national wild pig expansion.
Biologists blame much of the boom on hunters who buy feral pigs caught in other states and release them here.
Also, it's believed that a large number of domestic pigs freed when Hurricane Floyd damaged hog houses added fuel to the problem.
It doesn't take much.
Pigs are famous with the public for eating almost anything, famous to hunters as a wily opponent and famous among scientists for an extraordinary reproductive rate.
Female pigs can crank out three litters of up to 12 piglets each in 14 months, little ones that themselves begin reproducing within months.
"Everybody talks about rabbits reproducing quickly, but hogs can match or exceed them,'' Ray said. “The difference is that hogs have no real predators. That means one sow in two years' time can create 200 more pigs.''
Crop and habitat destruction is the wild pig issue that gets most of the attention nationally, with estimates of the annual damage at $1.5 billion.
Here, though, given North Carolina's status as one of the nation's largest producer of hogs, there's another potential catastrophe: Pork production could be nearly shut down within hours if diseases that have been found in feral pigs here are passed to their domestic cousins.
Ray said the diseases likely wouldn't be diagnosed until after spreading throughout the national pork industry, via thousands of feeder pigs that North Carolina producers ship daily to producers elsewhere who grow them to market size.
Wild pigs have been seen loitering near factory-style hog operations, and signs of them have been found around many others. And as their population has taken off here, there has also been a jump in the number of small specialty operations that raise pigs in open pastures. That may make them more likely to come into contact with wild pigs or illnesses from them.
The hog producers are keenly aware of the potential for disaster, and participated in a legislative study group that helped develop the law with the fine for transporting wild pigs, said Angie Maier, a lobbyist for the N.C. Pork Council. The council, she said, has been spreading the word about wild pigs to its members so that they'll take precautions to keep wild pigs away from their domestic ones.
More education, she said, also needs to be done for the general population, which is mainly unaware of the feral hog onslaught. And hunters in particular should be made fully aware of the huge dangers posed by releasing feral swine and the damage they do to crops and wildlife habitat.
Wild pigs can carry some 30 diseases, many of them also harmful to humans. Researchers from N.C. State University have found several diseases in wild pigs here, including the discovery that many are harboring bacteria that cause brucellosis, a disease that can sicken people and cause spontaneous miscarriages in pigs.
Chris DePerno, an associate professor of forestry and environmental resources who led much of that research, said now that it's clear the diseases are present in local wild pigs, he's looking for funding to explore what paths those diseases might use to reach domestic populations, and how to block them.
"At this point, we don't understand the full nature of the risk, and that's just critical,'' he said.