The Problem with Feral Hogs
In the wake of dual mass shootings in early August of 2019 in El Paso, TX and Dayton, OH, the issue of feral hogs briefly surfaced into public discussion. A Twitter user from rural Arkansas responded to country singer Jason Isbell’s support for banning the sale of assault style weapons in the United States. In his Tweet, Mr. William McNabb asked, “How do I kill the 30-50 feral hogs that run into my yard within 3-5 minutes while my small kids play?”
While experts indicate that having an AR-15 at hand is not the best method for dealing with an incursion of feral hogs, the presence of feral hogs in at least 39 states around the country is a serious problem for rural residents, in terms of economic and environmental damage. As of 2018, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated the value of those damages to agriculture at $1.5 billion, caused by as many as six million animals. Other estimates from experts from the University of Georgia, suggest it could be as high as $2.5 billion. In recent years, feral hogs have also been spotted in urban areas in some states.
The domestic hog (sus scrofus domesticus) is not native to North America, but was brought to the New World by European explorers and settlers in large numbers beginning in the 17th century. Historians believe that Christopher Columbus’s brought eight hogs with him on his second trip to the New World. Colonial farmers often allowed their hogs to graze openly in the forest, and over time, many animals escaped into the wild, establishing a feral population. In the 1930’s, Russian boars were imported into Texas for hunting purposes. Research indicates that some of those animals interbred with the existing feral hog population.
For much of the twentieth century, the feral hog population was found primarily in southern states. It is no accident that the athletic mascot for the University of Arkansas is the razorback, which is a colloquial name for feral hogs in some parts of the country. Texas and Florida still have the largest numbers but in recent decades the animals have spread much more widely. Some wildlife experts believe that feral hogs were deliberately transported to at least some states in the north for hunting purposes.
Feral hogs generally travel in packs of eight or so animals known as sounders. They can do a significant amount of damage on a farm or ranch--eat or damage immature crops, tear up crop or pasture land with their “wallowing” practices, damage fencing or other farm infrastructure, frighten, scatter, or even kill grazing livestock, and contaminate groundwater sources.
Another problem is that feral hogs can serve as a reservoir for diseases and pests that can then be transmitted into the domestic hog population. The rapid spread of African Swine Fever (ASF) throughout Asia and parts of Europe over the past year or so, and at least some of that spread has been attributed to wandering feral hogs in both regions. There is an acute fear that if ASF arrives in the United States despite robust quarantine efforts, the feral hog population would make the disease even more difficult to eradicate in this country.
Feral hogs have also been known to attack humans on rare occasions, although their instinct is to flee rather than attack humans when encountered. According to a report issued by USDA’s National Institute on Food and Agriculture in 2019, only four human deaths have been recorded as a result of feral hog attacks since the late 1800’s. Three of the four deaths occurred as part of hunting expeditions, when wounded boars were cornered. The injuries to humans caused by hogs typically were to their feet or legs, and sometimes lead to serious infections.
In recent years, control of the feral hog population has been tackled by both lethal and non-lethal methods. Seeking to trap or hunt the animals is a common approach used by farmers, and in Texas, avid hunters pay thousands of dollars to hunt the animals while riding on low-flying helicopters. On the non-lethal side, farmers can use fencing, guard animals, or vaccinate their grazing animals to check the spread of diseases.
In the 2018 farm bill, Congress established The Feral Swine Eradication and Control Pilot Program (FSCP) to respond to the threat feral swine pose to agriculture, native ecosystems, and human and animal health. USDA is focusing efforts through this pilot where feral swine pose the highest threat. This pilot program will receive $75 million over the lifetime of the farm bill, and is being managed by the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Applicants seeking funds under the pilot must provide at least a 25 percent match.