Hogs Gone Wild

Ohio’s feral pigs (big, diseased creatures, running roughshod over farms and state land, doing untold damage costing millions of dollars) are headed this way! And there’s only one way to stop them.

Brian Hughes, a burly ex-Marine and veteran hunter, sat on a camouflage camp stool staring down at the corn field below through an infrared scope mounted on his .30-06 rifle. A crescent moon dipped behind the thick-wooded ridgeline in front of us as I sat cross-legged on my jacket, feeling the heft of a .454 six-shooter on my hip, a weapon I take to Alaska each summer for bear defense. That makes me sound like one tough hombre. The truth is I’ve never actually fired a weapon at a living thing, save for a few small birds when I was a kid.

But this was different. I held the gun in my lap as the two of us watched the corn field about 50 yards away, straining to catch a glimpse of tonight’s prey: wild hogs. It is estimated that 200 of the beasts have invaded the 240,000-acre Wayne National Forest, rooting up hillsides and fragile plants, eating farm crops, and generally menacing life and property.

Feral swine—an ancestor of the domestic farm pig, which are also commonly referred to as wild hogs, razorbacks, piney woods rooters, and disease-toting annihilators—are the kudzu of the animal kingdom, a foreign invasive species with the power to take over everything while offering few, if any, advantages. Though we hunted a few hours east of Cincinnati’s suburban edge, the hogs’ spread inches ever closer to Hamilton County; indeed, there’s been at least one sighting in Clermont County and a large herd is known to roam Boone County. If these behemoths haven’t set off any alarms yet, just wait, they will. Let’s not forget: Twenty years ago few of us would have suspected we would ever see coyotes in Eden Park or learn of suburban neighborhoods employing bow hunters to cull deer from wooded backyards. Boars are nothing you want living near you. At the age of four or five, they typically weigh a few hundred pounds and sport bony, garish, Klingon-esque snouts and shaggy hair. In Ohio, adults can range from 100 to 300 pounds with males growing four 3-inch-long tusks.

Experts worry not only about their size, but also their cunning intelligence, prolific spread, and negative economic impact. The United States Department of Agriculture pegs it at nearly a billion dollars in cost nationally (experts believe that established populations of wild hogs exist in 36 states). In Ohio, feral swine have destroyed crops, dug up roots and tubers, harmed soil integrity, created wet wallows of up to 300 square feet, contaminated downstream water quality, eaten food that other animals desperately need to survive, and spread 30 viral and bacterial diseases (like pseudorabies) and 37 different parasites.

Those are some pretty good reasons for a guy like Hughes to go hating on some wild pigs with a high-powered rifle, especially when the hogs have been plundering a friend’s crop fields at night and Hughes can take the carcasses home for food. “I’ve seen hogs come in from just before dark and on,” said Hughes, as we settled in at sunset for hours of waiting and watching.

Those are also good reasons for the federal government to station Craig Hicks in Ohio. Hicks is a wildlife disease biologist with the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service whose job description includes exterminating invasive species. He explained his mission to me very simply: “We want them to go away.”

The job is serious. We are at an infestation tipping point in Ohio, says Hicks, and winning the battle of the boars will take a coordinated effort involving farmers, hunters, and government. But stopping the spread of feral swine in this state means hunters are going to have to get just as mean, determined, and intelligent as the hogs themselves. And that, as you will see, may take some time.

Hogs were first brought to America in 1539 by Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto to be kept domestically for food; those that escaped found it easy enough to survive, and even thrive, in the North American wilderness. Fast-forward 300-plus years: In the 1890s, private hunting preserves started to import pure Russian wild boars—bigger and meaner than their domestic ancestors—which over time leeched out into the American landscape, from Texas to New Hampshire.

These days, after years of wanton interbreeding and neglect by the human population, there are three types of feral swine one can encounter on the Ohio veldt: farm pigs gone wild after escaping or being released by farmers who don’t want to (or can’t) deal with them any longer; Eurasian or Russian boar that were imported mostly by hunting preserves (and have since escaped or been released); and—in greatest number—hybrids spawned by the first two. “Our Ohio boars are pretty much all mutts by now,” says Hicks.

And spawn they do. Females can have up to two litters of piglets a year numbering five to 10 each time, and they can begin reproducing within their first year of life. With growth like that, it’s difficult to stay ahead of the population. According to Ohio’s Department of Natural Resources, the hogs have already spread through much of  the state, with most of the population concentrated in a wide swath of southeastern Ohio, including Adams and Scioto counties.

Reliable reports of feral swine began to trickle in to Ohio wildlife officials in Vinton and Gallia Counties in the 1980s. While the numbers have grown steadily over the years, Hicks says it’s hard to know the total number of feral swine across the state, although one official with the Ohio Division of Wildlife estimated there are as many as 1,000. “Our data would only be anecdotal,” he said. “Unlike white-tailed deer and wild turkeys, hog hunters do not have to report to wildlife officials when they kill [them].”

But after multiple conversations with hunters and property owners, it seems reasonable to guess that Wayne National Forest alone harbors hundreds. And they have also been spotted inside the Cincinnati Museum Center’s 16,000-acre Edge of Appalachia Preserve in nearby Adams County. “We’ve had a small issue with a few feral pigs escaping apparently from a local hunting farm,” said Chris Bedel, the preserve’s director.

Which sounds innocent enough, except that’s exactly how so many of the infestations get started. One or more hogs escape or get released, bear piglets, join up with other hogs into a sounder (wild hog talk for a family), and suddenly you’ve got herds of them galloping through the woods.

And they’re heading our way. Bob Beck, a local commercial developer and recreational equestrian, once confronted a wild boar on land he owned in Goshen Township. “I was riding my horse one day and came upon this huge boar with long dark
hair and tusks,” he told me. “I looked at it, it looked at me, and I turned around and got out of there. It was kind of scary.”

To keep up with the numbers—and to try to keep them at bay—the state has come up with several strategies for dealing with the swine. First, USDA officials like Hicks, who’s the lead on feral pig extermination in Ohio, team hunters up with local farmers and property owners to cut into the hogs’ growth numbers. When hunters do kill animals, Hicks often takes a blood sample to check for diseases like swine fever, pseudorabies (also known as “mad itch,” a disease that’s deadly to cattle, sheep, and house pets), and brucellosis, which can cause chronic flu-like symptoms in both humans and animals that last for years.

“I’ve been called by hunters at two in the morning who say, ‘Hey, we just killed a couple of feral swine,’” says Hicks. He now keeps blood-sampling equipment at home so that when he gets those calls, he can grab his test kit, drive to the carcass, draw blood, and then rush to his laboratory to study it. “I’ve got only three hours to get there and draw a good sample. After that the blood clots.”

But using hunters as the primary eradication strategy may not be enough. To really impact the wild hog population in Ohio, the most efficient method is to trap groups of hogs in a large cage and then quickly kill them.

Brian Hughes drove me to a spot in the southern part of Jackson County, bordering Gallia County, where he had constructed a four-foot-by-four-foot-by-eight-foot trap cage. “Not too long ago we built a trap with a door we could set that would lock closed after pigs went in to get our corn mash bait,” he told me. For several nights he and several hunting buddies conditioned the hogs to enter the trap, feed, and leave. Finally, they set the door to close and lock as each animal entered. “One night we killed seven,” he said.

Other states have tried a variety of methods for dealing with their hog problem. Texas, which has roughly half of America’s wild hogs and plenty of open space, allows helicopter and shooter combinations to eradicate them. It’s become a lucrative business. (Texas is also the home of the Campbell family—stars of A&E’s popular reality television show American Hoggers—headed by a crusty patriarch and his charismatic adult kids who track and kill feral swine for profit.) Nevertheless, the state still has roughly 1.5 million wild hogs and the population is growing.

Michigan may be at the cutting edge of the fight in its effort to avoid serious ecological destruction from up to 3,000 feral swine. According to Ed Golder, public information officer at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, the state issued an “Invasive Species Order” in October 2011 making it illegal, with heavy monetary penalties, to have the animals on your property for any reason, including commercial hunting. Though detractors claim it has unfairly cut off a legitimate food supply for rural people, proponents say it’s a needed step to keep the proliferation of wild hogs from hitting a critical mass.

Ohio has made it as easy as it can to kill the pigs. On private land, hunters can dispatch them at any time of the year and in unlimited numbers, as long as they have permission from the property owner. On state or federal land, wild hogs can be stalked year-round if the hunter has an in-season hunting license and the proper designated weapon: a bow, muzzle-loaded weapon, shotgun, or rifle, depending on the season.

Which sounds pretty straightforward, except that hunting them down is no easy task. As quarry goes, feral swine are a crafty bunch. They like to bury themselves in the densest part of the forest; during daylight hours they largely lay up in wet, muddy, well-hidden bogs, rousing themselves for food only when most hunters have turned in for the night. They are among the smartest predators in America, exhibiting a sixth sense for knowing where to hide, when to move, and how to avoid humans altogether. Swine are stealthy and have a remarkable sense of smell.

The night of our hunt, Hughes and I visited three cornfields, one with large areas of stalks trampled flat, a sure sign that the animals had recently gorged themselves. If we had stayed in our position the entire night, one or two might have walked into our sights. But considering how elusive they are, we decided not to chance it. (Plus, I had to drive back to Cincinnati.) We called off our surveillance at 3 a.m.

Just a few nights earlier, though, Hughes had success not far from where we had been; he field dressed his kills, butchered them, and quickly ground some of the meat into sausage. “I just had some the other night,” he said, smiling. Hunters are motivated to take the wild pigs for the ungodly amount of meat they render (the sows are said to be the sweetest and best tasting), but stalking them also provides a good challenge, and some would argue, societal benefits.

To get a good, clean shot at a hog, hunters will go to great lengths. Some will set up unmanned digital trail cameras to figure out where the animals gather, then cook up a 55-gallon batch of sour corn mash and haul it to the site on an all-terrain vehicle. Others prefer to stake out a crop field after dark (as we did) and lie in wait, hoping the hogs make an appearance. As Hicks put it, “hunters have to be willing to put in the time.”

Those who do can be rewarded. Gary Toth of Madison, Ohio, has chased wild hogs on a commercial game preserve in Tennessee with his friends, where they’ve managed to bag 10 hogs over six years. “It is some of the best pork, really good meat,” he says. “And it does put money into the economy.” Hunters will gladly pay to visit preserves and fill up at gas stations and eat at restaurants. In fact, Toth perked up when I told him about several commercial hunting lodges in Pike County. He said he’d jump at the chance to do his hog hunting closer to home—especially if the swine are plentiful and fat.

Jim Blair, whose 220-acre farm we staked out that night, has killed a number of hogs with his bow and arrow. But he still welcomes Hughes’ creative help—or anybody’s, really—in getting them off his land. “They’re out of control,” he told me as we stood in his barnyard at sunset. He told one story about shooting a sow with a single arrow from a tree stand; the arrow killed her and then pierced another hog. But the rest of the sounder milled around the dead and squealing wounded for the next 20 minutes, forcing Blair to stay up in his tree stand until he could quietly sneak down the ladder and escape in the darkness. Ask any hunter: An angry hog is one perilous motherscratcher.

The rapid spread of hogs and the damage they cause for farmers like Blair prompted a sort of barnyard think tank. We brainstormed a concept where hunters could get special government permission to take their all-terrain vehicles onto national forest or state park trails—currently a violation—to haul in heavy drums of corn mash bait and go after the hogs where they are most prevalent. Or maybe tax credits to help feral swine hunters pay for expensive night scopes and hog traps. At present the only incentive for a wild hog hunter to join the effort is the meat they harvest for their tables. (The pelts are worthless.)

But the more I embraced these extermination strategies, the more I wondered if they were the only way forward. I mean, I’m a guy who doesn’t hunt. I began to wonder if I should act as a devil’s advocate for the hogs, at least to clean up my karma. Maybe feral swine are unfairly misunderstood.

I’ve hiked thousands of backcountry miles throughout America, including 13 straight summers wandering around Alaska, and when I see an animal, including the majestic grizzly bear, I never think of shooting it. I usually just watch (from a safe distance), even if they’re eating another animal on the tundra or rooting up mountainsides of wildflowers searching for a meal of marmots.

Maybe the environmental destruction of feral swine is similar. Maybe it is part of nature’s way, like forest fires that unleash young healthy undergrowth or the onslaught of other invasive species, such as the emerald ash borer, that are forever altering our landscape. Did anyone have the boars’ side in this fight? And should they?

I called PETA for a gut check. Kristin Simon, a senior cruelty caseworker for the organization, pointed out that these animals were unfairly caught in a human created problem. (We brought the Russian boars here, after all.) “No animal should be slaughtered in the name of conservation,” she said initially.

But when I described Ohio’s explosion of wild hogs and the accompanying damage, even she took a pragmatic view. “If lethal methods are required, it should be done with the least amount of stress to the animals,” she said. And although she thought trapping and quickly shooting them was a reasonable solution, she really saw Michigan’s complete ban as the best option.

That didn’t quite settle the matter for me, though. So I sought comfort from an old friend who I knew was no closer to the National Rifle Association than we are to finding people living on Mars. Tim Burke, the head of the Hamilton County Democratic Party, said flatly, “With woodchucks, deer, raccoons, opossum, and Lazarus wall lizards all coming into Mt. Lookout Square these days, we don’t need feral swine too.” Then came the blessing. “Go ahead, Jene. Do what you have to do.”

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