Kansas' war on feral swine is being fought largely on a 40-mile front along the Oklahoma state line.
But Curran Salter is winning battles from his Hoisington home about four hours away, often in the middle of the night with the simple push of a button. That's all it takes to drop a new style of trap that's greatly improved his efficiency.
A pile of corn was placed near a trail camera by Curran Salter. If a herd of feral pigs starts using the bait site, he'll put a remote-controlled drop trap at the sight.
"The main thing is that this lets us decide when we want to drop the trap," Salter said about a 22-foot across drop trap. "When they're here, we get a video so we know exactly what is under the trap. We'll know if it's just one animal, or maybe a deer or a raccoon, or the entire (herd of pigs). The whole process of getting these traps set up, and the pigs in them, is so much faster, too."
America's wild pigs are descendants of domestic pigs gone wild. Feral pigs are found in more than 40 states, from Florida to California, and three Canadian provinces. Their range has more than doubled in the past 30 years. Some estimates put the U.S. population at more than 6 million. That's a jump of 2 million from five years ago. Feral sows often have two litters per year, each with six to 10 piglets, The Wichita Eagle reported.
Kansas is one of the few states to keep the feral swine population at bay.
Salter, a U.S. Department of Agriculture wildlife biologist, said Kansas has been fighting feral pigs since 2006, when a population appeared on Fort Riley. It's thought most Kansas populations were pigs that had been trapped farther south, then released in Kansas by hunters wanting to create a local population. That practice is now illegal.
Over the past decade, Salter and other biologists have killed 6,000 feral pigs within about 20 Kansas counties, or in bordering parts of neighboring states. Localized populations have been eradicated. Salter estimates the Kansas population is fewer than 1,000 animals.
One of Kansas' two main pig problem areas is in Bourbon County, where several landowners want a huntable population and forbid federal eradication efforts.
The other area is between Montgomery and Cowley counties, along the Oklahoma line, where the pigs are expanding northward from Oklahoma, a state with an estimated population of more than 600,000 wild pigs.
Trapping has been a vital tool for controlling Kansas' populations since 2006. Never has it been more efficient.
Initial traps involved using piles of corn for bait. When trail cameras showed a sizable herd in the area, biologists began a slow process of getting the pigs acclimated to a trap of welded wire panels attached to posts in the ground, gradually building it around the corn, adding a new piece every several days.
"It used to take three or four weeks, or even months for the pigs to accept things, and get used to an enclosure on the ground," said Salter. "We had to go in every few days and get things gradually constructed, keep baiting it."
Early traps relied on trip wires to lower a gate at one end of the trap. A gluttonous single pig might trip the trap before others were within. Worse, would be if a non-target animal dropped the gate before a herd of swine arrived.
"If they walk up, and see that animal, a deer or a raccoon trapped, you about have to start over," said Salter. "Pigs are too smart to come back to that trap."
A few years ago, biologists started using similar traps that had a door that could be dropped remotely, thanks to a camera that sent images to biologists via cell phone signal. His best single night catch in one trap was 42 pigs.
Now, with a similar trigger system, paired with the new style of drop trap that sits 44 inches above the ground, the waiting game can be greatly reduced.
Last week, he made the rounds checking trail cameras and bait piles south of Cedar Vale. His last stop was where a drop trap sat in a sprawling field of harvested milo. The trap stuck out like a battleship on a sea of flattened stalks.
"That's one of the benefits to these is that we can set them about anywhere and they don't seem to notice them," Salter said. "I think it's because when they walk up they can see completely underneath these things so they feel secure. Sometimes you can catch the entire (herd) the night after you set it up. These save us so much time."
Speaking of time, this is the time of year Salter and the two other USDA wildlife biologists in Kansas are working their longest hours. With the end of deer seasons they have access to most properties for baiting and trapping. (Salter said almost all landowners asked have allowed his crews to eradicate feral pigs on their lands.)
They also have an annual program of shooting feral pigs from a helicopter, which usually makes up about 60 percent of the annual kill in Kansas. Some days, crews have killed more than 100 feral pigs and totally eradicated isolated populations. Carcasses are disposed of as per the landowner's request.
Even with such weapons, and a well-funded feral swine control program within the current farm bill, Salter sees no end to the fight to keep Kansas as wild pig-free as possible.
"We can keep them beat back, but they're always going to keep coming," he said. "We're in this for the long haul."