Pigs Don't Fly

February 4, 2018 01:48 PM
Steve Backs

Hidden inside covered trailers or hauled in plain sight under the cover of darkness, wild pigs are on the move. Even trussed in car trunks, stuffed in dog boxes, stretched across back seats or sold on Facebook, wild pigs often march to a man-made beat. Through advances in genetic technology, intuition is being confirmed with hard evidence: The most reproductively capable large animal in North America is hitching a human ride.

Wild pig expansion has jumped from 19 states in 1985 to 39 states in 2016. Jack Mayer, manager of the Environmental Sciences and Biotechnology Group at the Savannah River National Laboratory in Aiken, S.C., places the approximate U.S. wild pig population at 6.3 million, with a range between 4.4 million to 11.3 million.

Wild pigs have a historical presence in the South, but consistently began popping up in the Midwest in the early 1990s due to illegal transport. Steve Backs, a wildlife biologist with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (IDNR), says the Midwest wild pig population is attributable to intentional sport releases and pen escapes.

Indiana’s current wild pig presence is limited to several counties, a population Backs credits to a single probable source. In the mid-1990s, a resident of Louisiana used wild pigs as a cover to poach Indiana deer: “This guy would haul in wild hogs and release them. He’d hunt deer in the same location at night and when approached, he’d claim he was hunting hogs,” Backs says.

“The rumor was he was killing Midwest deer and entering them in big buck contests in the South. We couldn’t catch him releasing the hogs, but we knew what was going on,” he adds.

The suspect might have released more than 60 wild pigs, Backs says, a number easily capable of sparking a population explosion: “There were others doing the same thing, and there was no coordinated effort, but the initial surge of hogs was likely due to his efforts.”

Indiana authorities eventually made a deer poaching-related arrest. “Circumstantial evidence shows he also was killing deer and taking hogs into other Midwest states. There were Illinois counties with big deer that all of a sudden had wild hogs,” Backs says.

Describing wild pigs as “God’s perfect survival animals,” Backs says the hunting allure is ultimately a devil’s bargain. Wild pig presence translates to habitat loss for other animals, including deer. “We’re talking about cockroaches on hooves. When hogs show up, deer leave,” he says.

Backs admits some Indiana landowners continue to foster wild pig populations to hunt. Under Indiana laws, a landowner is responsible for livestock damage to a neighbor’s crops. “It’s probably just a matter of time before an impacted farmer takes a neighbor, who continues to harbor wild pigs on their land, to court,” Bakes says.

Hot on the trail of wild pig movement, Bronson Strickland is working with scientists using genetic testing to prove adjacent populations are often unrelated.
“Scientifically, when a group of pigs has unique genetics, it tells me they shouldn’t be in that location unless illegal transport is involved,” says Strickland, a wildlife biologist and wildlife management specialist with Mississippi State University Extension.

Strickland has watched the wild pig population explode in Mississippi. As of 2017, at least 50% of Mississippi land has wild pigs with a sustained presence translating to more than 200,000.

If you see hogs on your property or trail camera, take action or risk an unmanageable situation, he says. If you see anything suspicious regarding transport, call your state Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks so they can investigate.

On March 29, 2017, Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks (MDWFP) agents raided a location in Walthall County related to wild pig activity. A ring of four individuals was trapping wild pigs in Louisiana, transporting them to a holding pen in Mississippi, and brazenly selling them on Facebook, according to Major Lane Ball, south region administrator at MDWFP. It was an unusual incident involving social media and illegal transport, but it offered a clear window into the pace and underground nature of wild pig dispersal. (There have been other significant wild pig transport arrests in Alabama, Kentucky and Tennessee.)
“The vast majority of hunters do it right and are great people,” Ball says. “The simple fact is there are always some bad apples to spoil the whole bunch.”

Nationwide, more states are employing genetic profiles to monitor wild pig outbreaks. IDNR uses a genetic database to store wild pig DNA. As Backs and his team of wildlife specialists get further down the wild pig removal trail, they’ll be able to detect whether new sounders originate in Indiana or out of state. In some cases, they might be able to trace new arrivals to a specific point of origin.

“Pigs don’t fly, and we know how they’re getting here. We don’t have a hog hunting tradition yet, and we don’t want one,” Backs says. “Our Midwest pig problems are relatively small and we want to keep them that way.”

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