They’re as smart as their film counterpart, Babe. They are as cute, at least when young, as Wilbur of Charlotte’s Web fame. But when it comes to the real deal, feral pigs are more like something out of a Tim Burton movie, or worse.
Weighing in at a voracious 300 pounds, the razor-fanged invasive species is threatening to overrun Turtle Island. Wild boars steal limited food resources away from native wildlife—in some cases eating endangered wildlife itself—damage crops and property, contaminate water supplies and transmit disease to livestock and humans alike.
A cross between domesticated swine and Eurasian hogs, these beasts have become a four-legged ecological disaster headed to a watershed near you. Indeed, some experts say, there are only two types of landowners—those who have wild pigs on their properties now and those who eventually will.
“These animals, truly the ultimate omnivore, are an environmental and economic disaster that already causes over a billion dollars in damages every year,” said Alan May, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Wildlife Services Director for New Mexico. “In an alarmingly short period, just the last several years, we have gone from wild pigs in just two counties to feral hogs in seventeen of our thirty-three counties.”
Feral pigs have been a part of life in the Southeast for years. Today they are found in 33 states from Florida to California and as far north as Wisconsin, Oregon and New Hampshire. Some experts estimate the free-ranging populations of feral swine now number in excess of five million.
In states like New Mexico, where they were unknown a couple of decades ago, they have become a disaster of rapidly expanding proportion, and because New Mexico is an arid Southwestern state, it serves as a harbinger of what could come to pass elsewhere.
Tribes are at the forefront of the battle, with Texas as the flashpoint. The Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas is battling them, and others are monitoring a pending problem everywhere from the Mescalero Agency in New Mexico, to California’s Viajas Band of the Kumeyaay Nation and the Barona Band of Mission Indians.
“These guys are really bad news that will eventually devastate the lands they reach,” said Ray Powell, a land office Commissioner for New Mexico.
“Communities all along southern New Mexico are already dealing with the issue, and it’s just a matter of time before they make their way up along the Rio Grande and become a problem for everyone,” said Joe Early of the Albuquerque U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service office.
Wild pigs breed prolifically—they can double in population every four to six months, with up to a dozen piglets in each litter—and are migrating across state borders in a push westward. Because they eat just about anything, their only true prerequisite is a continuous supply of water. They mate on the move.
“We’re at the low end of the fear factor now because of low numbers, but it wouldn’t take much to move to the high end,” said Arizona’s USDA state wildlife director, David Bergman. Pigs already live in several parts of the state, including the Lake Havasu National Wildlife Refuge, where there is plenty of Colorado River water for the animals to drink and bathe in.
“There are several hundred in that herd that have been there for years,” Bergman said. He added that they’ve also been reported in the woods of northern Arizona, although White Mountain Apache Tribal wildlife biologist Jesse Palmer says his department staff has not observed any during annual game surveys.
How the hogs arrived in Arizona is not definitively known. Some made the journey on their own, while others are believed to have shown up as the result of a hog-dogging event in Yavapai County some years ago in which wild Russian hogs were captured on the plains of West Texas and brought to an Arizona ranch as part of a training session for hunting dogs.
Sheriff’s deputies ultimately made arrests for animal cruelty in that case and attempted to round up the 32 wild hogs. Either a breeding pair escaped, or a stag got away and found a domesticated date. What is clear is that now is the time to get rid of them, before the problem escalates even further.
“We’ve still got a chance in Arizona to do something about the problem before things get out of control as is happening now in New Mexico and has already happened in Texas,” Bergman says.
In Texas alone, the feral pig population is at 2.6 million throughout 250 of the state’s 254 counties, according to a July 24 report in the Houston Chronicle. Hunted by helicopter and other means, about 750,000 have been killed annually over the past few years, the Chronicle said. But even so, they are multiplying. In 1982, said Michael Bodenchuk, Texas’s director of the USDA’s Wildlife Services branch, they took 86 pigs. In 2011 it was 24,746, he told the newspaper.
Tribal lands are not yet overrun, but they are seeing the need to make a plan.
“Although it’s a problem throughout Polk County and we have some on the reservation, right now they’re more of a nuisance than a problem for us,” says Jenna Battise, environmental specialist with the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas.
Wildlife biologist Jennifer Smith of New Mexico’s Bureau of Indian affairs, Mescalero Agency, said the issue near a tipping point.
“Feral pigs have been on the reservation for 30 to 40, years and I remember chasing piglets as a child, but their population is growing now and it’s starting to become a problem,” Smith said.
Tribal troubles have already arisen in San Diego County, according to Robert Scheid, who represents California’s Viejas Band of the Kumeyaay Nation and the Barona Band of Mission Indians in acknowledging a few hundred hogs there.
“Populations are isolated and disconnected now, but they grow exponentially, and if not eradicated early on in a limited window of opportunity, it will become a management nightmare,” Scheid said.
Eradication poses a catch-22, however. Although it’s the problem begs to be controlled in its early stages, the issue of feral pigs is politically off the radar of most lawmakers. Without the necessary political and financial support, little is being done to eradicate the menace. Tribal efforts will not quell the spread without wider cooperation.
“Unlike state and local governments, tribes can take quick action, but that only pushes the problem outside the reservation,” Scheid pointed out.
In New Mexico the Bureau of Land Management, the USDA, the Forest Service and wildlife agencies know of the situation and could mount a counterattack, but no money exists to pay for such a war.
“The problem is, no agency has adequate funding to get rid of the pigs,” says May. “Right now, we respond to specific situations where we have cooperative agreements in place to trap or eradicate pigs at a local level, but we’re only touching the tip of the iceberg. I don’t have a crystal ball, but I’m pretty sure in the absence of widespread control efforts, we’ll have feral pigs in every county in the state if we don’t act soon. We’ll pay for it later if we don’t do something now.”
Now, with feral swine densities low in New Mexico, “we have an excellent opportunity to eliminate this invasive, non-native species before they cause irreversible damage—but to be successful, we need to act now with an adequately-funded collaborative effort,” May added.
It’s a similar situation on the other side of the New Mexico–Arizona border.
“We regularly remove swine from the Havasu area every year and will respond to individual landowner reports of pig damage, but there are no dedicated eradication programs, and we may live to regret that,” Bergman says.
With little in the way of government oversight, USDA takes the point on this battle, providing traps and training to affected areas such as Lincoln National Forest.
“There are no laws regulating the hunting of these animals, and nobody is really in charge,” says Smith, a biologist with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. “We’ve built fences and set a few traps, but haven’t caught anything yet.”
Somebody better start soon to get a handle on the problem, Arizona USDA coordinator Bergman said.
“We have a chance now to do something,” Bergman said. “If we don’t, we’re going to follow along like the rest of the states and we’ll end up with a solid wall of feral pigs all the way from Florida to California.”