The following story was written by a University of Missouri student as part of the 2009 Sonja Hillgren/Farm Journal Ag Journalism Field Reporting Institute. Learn more.
By Teresa Shipley
Cattle farmer Bob Sell surveyed the damage to his field near Warsaw, Mo., with weary eyes. A large swath of earth lay ripped up and exposed like it'd been slashed with knives. He knew he'd lost acres of hay. A profitable crop just the day before, Sell's patch had been transformed into a muddy and useless mess.
"Being farmers, we knew exactly what done it," he said.
The perpetrators were feral hogs, animals not native to Missouri but which have been imported into the state, usually for hunting. Hogs can escape from enclosures or are released illegally into the wild where they breed quickly and cause damage to farms, forests and wildlife. Not only do they tear up the landscape as they root for food, wild hogs carry dozens of diseases. Two of the more threatening illnesses have the potential to cost the state's domestic cattle and swine industries millions of dollars.
A Missouri Department of Conservation employee handles a feral hog skull near Warsaw, Mo., on Sept. 11, 2009. On average, the hogs weigh about 200 pounds. Their long, shovel-like snouts and sharp tusks are perfectly suited to digging for food. (Photo by Chris Dunn/University of Missouri.)
In 2007, Governor Matt Blunt created a 10-member feral hog task force to address the growing problem. The Missouri Department of Conservation and the Missouri Department of Agriculture were appointed as co-chairs, and eight other members represent a variety of public and private groups in the state who all express concern about feral hogs.
Although the task force has made significant strides in public education about the issue, the group has been somewhat slower in its stated goal of writing legislation to curb the impact from feral hogs and speed their eradication from the state. It turns out that one seemingly insignificant word -- "wildlife" -- has been putting the brakes on the whole process.
No one knows exactly when or how feral hogs got to Missouri. Public land managers speculate that some imported Russian and European boars escaped from game preserves or other wildlife "farms."
Another theory is that during the commercial hog farming economic crisis in the 1980s, bankrupt farmers simply released their financially worthless animals into the wild. Biologists have also found traces of potbellied pig blood, suggesting that some feral hog ancestors were once family pets.
In terms of financial damage, conservation officials say it's difficult to estimate the total cost of feral hogs to Missouri's industries, forests and wildlife. Missouri has between 5,000 and 10,000 feral pigs spread across 20 counties, officials estimate.
By comparison, Texas estimates it has roughly one million wild pigs. It spends about $51 billion annually on feral hog damage to agriculture alone. Nationwide, the animals cause about $800 billion in damage each year, according to data compiled by the task force.
Rex Martensen has been hip-deep in the feral hog issue for over a decade. As the field programs supervisor for the Missouri Department of Conservation's private land services, Martensen hears complaints about the pigs from landowners across the state. That number was pretty infrequent in the early 1990s, but it dramatically increased in the mid to late part of that decade, he said.
"We saw hogs showing up in new places," he said. "There was more interest in hunting them, too. Things just started culminating."
Iron and Reynolds counties and the Fort Leonard Wood military base were the first to report feral hog sightings, but populations have continued to spread across the southern half of the state. The northern half has had isolated sightings as well. Hogs are also excellent swimmers and are not thwarted by the Missouri River from spreading, Martensen said.
Because hogs are naturally social animals, they tend to band together and form colonies when released into the wild. These traveling "families" are voracious feeders that scour the countryside for food, devouring everything from acorns and persimmons to the eggs of ground-nesting birds and baby deer. Long, tough snouts and two sets of curved tusks work like sharp shovels to root up earth, dig for food and kill wildlife. Conservation department of officials estimate that 10 feral pigs can destroy as much as 20 or 30 acres of crops in one night.
Added to the mix is the fact that hogs are incredibly smart. One MDC worker recounted a pig that propped open a trap door to rescue its imprisoned brethren. Once the pigs become habituated to one hunting method, land managers say they have to think of something else.
All of Missouri's established feral hog colonies are located in the southern half of the state and correspond closely to large tracts of public forest land, according to the conservation department. Illegal release of hogs on this land is a large part of the problem, Martensen said.
A Missouri Department of Conservation employee shows a snare, one of the many methods used to catch feral hogs. The snare, attached to a sturdy tree, acts like a limp noose until the hog brushes by and accidentally slips a hoof or a neck into the wire loop. The snare tightens around the trapped animal, making escape almost impossible. (Photo by Chris Dunn/University of Missouri.)
In 2005, MDC reported eight violations regarding illegal release of feral hogs on public property. Those were successfully prosecuted and resulted in fines. No violators have been pursued since then because of "loopholes and enforceability issues," he said.
Currently MDC can regulate "ungulates" on game preserves, but according to Martensen, that rule does not apply to preserves that have only hogs. Ungulates are animals with split hooves, such as deer, cattle or pigs.
Because feral pigs aren't defined as "wildlife," land managers have often been at a loss to figure out who is legally responsible for managing them. Not only has this word stymied attempts to craft legislation, it's also hog-tied land managers who've been trying to deal with wild swine from the beginning.
"They don't fall underneath MDC's wildlife code," Martensen said.
The conservation department's current wildlife code includes any native animals occurring here since about the early 1800s, plus a few government-introduced species like pheasant and trout, said Martensen. Feral hogs are considered game animals in some states and are managed as such, but Missouri is not among them. Because of this distinction, hunters can shoot as many as they want year-round with no permits.
The department's conservation agents are certified peace officers and can apply the wildlife code laws on public or private land statewide. For example, if an on-duty agent catches a person driving drunk anywhere in the state, he or she can issue a ticket with the same authority as a police officer. But in the case of feral hogs, the department's conservation agents can't enforce the illegal release rule on non-MDC lands because the animals aren't on the books as "wildlife."
The conservation department isn't the only state agency that has been confused about its duty regarding feral hogs. Missouri Department of Agriculture technically doesn't have responsibility either, since the animals aren't confined or owned like domestic, commercial swine. The task force's current definition of a feral hog gives some sense of this ambiguity.
They're defined as "any swine not conspicuously identified by ear tags or other forms of identification that were born in the wild or that lived outside of captivity for a sufficient length of time to be considered wild by nature by hiding from humans or being nocturnal."
Although neither of the task force co-chairs is legally responsible for feral hogs, both are working hard to eradicate the species. While MDC is focusing on public education and eradication, the agriculture department is clarifying existing legislation. According to several task force members, the agriculture department is leading the effort to have a bill sponsored this spring and on the books by next fall.
Missouri Department of Agriculture Director Jon Hagler, who is currently helping craft the new wording, could not be reached for comment.
The new wording will closely resemble what was outlined in the task force's 2008 report to the governor, several task force members said. In it, the group proposed amending the current feral hog statute that prohibits release of any swine on public land to include increased penalties for offenders.
The task force also pushed for stronger language that would criminalize financial gain from the release, capturing, killing, wounding or attempted killing or wounding of feral hogs. The group's report does not advocate a statewide hunting ban, a method employed by other states such as Kansas and Nebraska with some success.
"There is concern that an effort to enact such a hunting ban in Missouri could create controversy that would add uncertainty to the outcome of a legislative effort that would include other effective control and eradication measures," the report states. "Therefore, the task force has no position on a statewide feral hog hunting ban."
Dr. Taylor Woods, Missouri's state veterinarian, hinted at measures to control hog hunting business.
"The whole effort is to get rid of feral hogs," he said. "We'd like to see more control and get as many out of the feral hog business as possible."
Currently, Missouri has just nine game preserves, or "shooter farms," according to Woods. If the proposed wording changes in the task force report are adopted, the new legislation would require private landowners to get a permit for their hogs as well as enclose the animals inside a fenced lot subject to specific building requirements.
Most of these farms already have fence systems like this in place because they have animals other than hogs, such as gazelles or elk, that are subject to conservation department regulation, Martensen said. But by requiring all feral hogs to be permitted, the conservation department will be free to go after offenders, even on non-MDC lands.
According to the conservation department, Missouri is currently the only state using a multi-agency approach to dealing with feral hogs. Right now, the task force does not have specific funding for its efforts. Rather, each agency contributes money to control the hogs on its own property.
MDC budgets about $45,000 annually, which includes trap materials, GPS and radio collars, telemetry equipment and trail cameras. It does not include helicopter costs for aerial gunning, one of the more controversial methods of eradication MDC employs. This year, MDC took seven helicopter flights over four months for feral hog hunting and bagged just over 100 animals, according to Martensen.
The conservation department says its wild hog population estimate is most likely a conservative one. Part of the reason the hogs' numbers are hard to gauge is that they are literally difficult to see. They're nocturnal as well as free ranging, so unless the pigs happen to walk by a wildlife camera or are glimpsed by helicopter, land managers can't easily guess their numbers.
Also, they are prolific breeders. Sows, or female hogs, can produce two litters a year of six piglets each. This astonishing birthrate means their population can triple every year. The conservation department estimates that at least 70 percent of the feral hog population needs to be killed annually just to keep the population from growing.
Feral hogs aren't just a problem because they tear up the landscape. The threat of disease poses the most serious risk, according to the task force. Feral hogs are known to carry dozens of diseases, but none are of greater significance to Missouri than brucellosis and pseudorabies.
Brucellosis is a bacterial infection that causes cattle to abort their calves. Humans can also become infected with brucellosis, which causes flu-like symptoms such as fevers, body aches and even depression. Pseudorabies is a virus that causes abortion in pigs and intense itching, brain damage and death in cattle.
Jeff Windett is president of the Missouri Cattlemen's Association and represents the organization on the governor's feral hog task force. About 5,000 of the state's 65,000 cattle producers are MCA members.
"They're no good," Windett said of feral hogs.
Windett said he hasn't heard any reports of wild swine infecting Missouri cattle herds with either brucellosis or pseudorabies. But he's concerned. If the agriculture department testing confirms two cases of either disease in cattle or swine, it would cause a complete halt of all animal transport out of the state until the infected animals or herd was identified and destroyed, he said.
According to University of Missouri agricultural economist Ron Plain, that would cost the state a lot of money.
"Missouri producers make $2.2 billion in cattle sales each year," Plain said. "Even if production stopped for one week, the loss would be $42 million." Missouri is second in the nation for number of calves produced.
The numbers aren't quite as high for commercial pork production, but they're still dramatic. Missouri producers sell six million hogs a year, ranking it seventh in the nation. That equals about $750 million in sales each year, Plain said. Producers would lose more than $14 million a week if a disease like pseudorabies showed up in a domestic herd and production halted.
Missouri's pork herd has had a pseudorabies-free status for several years.
"We've worked very hard to keep that out of our herds," said Don Nicodeem, president of Missouri Pork Association and feral hog task force member. "If we lost that status, there would be huge economic impacts."
Both Windett and Nicodeem say they support the task force's recommended measures for dealing with feral hogs.
"I will voice support for whatever bill is the final bill," said Windett. "We are in full support of feral hog eradication."
Martensen said a lot of public support exists for feral hog eradication efforts, but he admits a small faction of hunters and dog enthusiasts would like to keep the animals in Missouri.
Dave Murphy, president of the citizen group Conservation Federation of Missouri, a task force member, said Missouri can't have it both ways.
"This is an either-or situation," he said. "Either we want to have wildlife and a domestic herd of livestock for business purposes, or we want feral hogs."