The Pig Report: What Role Do Hunters Play in the Fight Against Feral Swine?
New research is changing the fight against feral swine. The federal government is spending $20 million on the problem. But what role do hunters play on the front lines of the pig wars?
Photograph by Lon Lauber
You’ve never heard of wild pigs being in your area. But one day a farmer calls you because he’s been seeing a group of a dozen porkers rooting in his cornfield. He asks you to get rid of them, and so you slip in one evening and set up 50 yards downwind of their favorite trail with your AR-10.
When the pigs show, you settle your crosshairs on a big boar and squeeze the trigger. He drops in his tracks, and the rest of them scatter. You keep shooting and manage to kill one more hog before they disappear. The farmer is happy. You have a freezer full of pork and a newfound love for managing pigs.
Trouble is, you’re not managing anything. In fact, you probably just made the area pig problem worse.
If you’re a pig hunter, you’re probably also a deer hunter. You know that hunting is the best way to keep a deer population in check, and that aggressive tactics like sharpshooting can quickly reduce deer numbers when necessary. But pigs aren’t deer. A Booner buck is stupid compared with a boar; pigs react instantly to hunting pressure. That group of pigs, called a sounder, will continue destroying the farmer’s field, but now they’ll do it at night. Meanwhile, they’ll be breeding—and at an alarming rate compared with deer. A whitetail doe can have one fawn, at most, in her first year. A sow, on the other hand, will have two litters of four to six piglets by her first birthday—and the sows of the first litter will have litters of their own. Assume five of the surviving 10 pigs mentioned above are sows. Suddenly, in an average year, you could be looking at upwards of 100 new pigs.
Every year, wild pigs do an estimated $1.5 billion in crop damage. Their ecological effect—including impacts on native wildlife and habitat—hasn’t been quantified, but some biologists believe that number is closer to $20 billion annually. A Texas study showed that pigs frequently raid turkey and quail nests. They aren’t significant predators of fawns, but they do eat them given the chance. More important, they outcompete deer for top food sources; they’ll run deer out of your food plot, and then destroy it overnight. If pigs invade your ground, they will alter your hunting for the worse.
The good news is that a war on pigs is under way right now. We know more about managing them than we ever have. Generally speaking, three approaches to the problem are currently in use. None alone can win the pig war. But combined, they stand a chance.
Kill ‘Em All
Photograph by Russell Graves
Dr. Stephen Ditchkoff is a professor of wildlife ecology and management at the Auburn University School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences. A deer biologist, he is better known these days for his pig work. In 2003, Ditchkoff and a team of graduate students began a wild pig research project on Georgia’s Fort Benning military base, which is infested with swine. By monitoring the animals with trail cameras, GPS collars, and bait, they learned that wild pigs are highly territorial.
“You’d get a sounder—a group of related females and young—that would use an exclusive space, about 800 acres on average,” Ditchkoff says. “With little exception, those spaces did not overlap. We began to wonder if we could create a pig-free space by eliminating an entire sounder.”
Ditchkoff’s team trapped two sounders at first and monitored that area for six months afterward. It remained virtually pig-free. So they trapped three more, clearing a total of 5,000 acres. Before they had to leave Fort Benning, Ditchkoff’s team killed almost every single pig from the 20,000-acre study area. Almost.
“We told the natural resources guys that there were two pigs left,” Ditchkoff says. “One of them had a GPS collar, and the other was ear-tagged. Those two pigs never got trapped—and within two years, there were 70 to 100 pigs back in that 20,000 acres.”
This is the key to understanding pig control, Ditchkoff believes. “I don’t care how many you kill,” he says. “The only number that matters is how many are left behind. Until we start talking about that, we have not embraced the philosophy that we need to.”
That philosophy is called whole-sounder removal. And few have heeded it more than Rod Pinkston, a retired U.S. Army master sergeant formerly stationed at Fort Benning, where he learned of the South’s pig problems. Pinkston is a lifelong hunter who grew up on an Illinois pig farm. He also has a keen grasp of the applicable military technology, like thermal night vision. In 2006, he created Jager Pro Hog Control Systems, named for the time spent earning his Jagdschein (hunting license) while stationed in Germany.
“After spending 17 or 18 years on a pig farm, I know these animals,” Pinkston says. “I know their behavior, their vocalizations. I know they don’t crap where they eat or sleep. I know you can’t leave a sounder in a trap overnight if you’re trying to catch multiple sounders from an area. They don’t teach you that in a college course.”
Jager Pro sells a variety of trapping equipment, but Pinkston and his staff—almost all with military backgrounds—also do work-for-hire as pig-control contractors. Clients range from individual landowners to the EPA. Pinkston points to a contract with the Georgia Environmental Protection Division on Pennahatchee Creek. High rates of fecal E. coli bacteria were discovered in the Pennahatchee watershed, and farmers in the area were losing 25 to 50 percent of their crops (corn and peanuts) to hogs each year. “We removed 624 pigs in 76 events,” Pinkston says. “We documented the eradication of a 5,000-acre area.”
Not one farmer in that area lost a dime to pig damage in 2014.
Part of Jager Pro’s efficiency comes from a rigid, military-style approach; this crew is good at killing stuff. But even more is owed to the technology they employ. Their M.I.N.E. (Manually Initiated Nuisance Elimination) trapping system uses specialized trail cameras that send real-time photos to the operator’s cellphone. The user can monitor the corral-style trap remotely and, when he’s sure the entire sounder is inside, trigger the drop door. Then it’s a matter of showing up with a gun and killing the pigs.
Often, a pig or two will escape capture. When that happens, Pinkston creates a new bait set and returns at night with a rifle and thermal-vision optics to finish the job on any rogue hogs. When he wraps up a contract, the pigs are gone. All of them.
Kill as Many as You Can
A cam-monitored corral trap. Photograph by Will Brantley
Damage control, rather than pig elimination, is the U.S. government’s current approach to the problem. In 2014, Congress approved $20 million for the USDA APHIS National Feral Swine Damage Management Program. Fifty percent of the budget is dedicated to field operations, i.e., killing pigs. The rest goes to research, disease monitoring, outreach, regulation, and internal monitoring.
“Feral swine are an invasive species, and if there are places where we can eliminate them, we hope to do that,” says Dale Nolte, the program coordinator. “But our first goal is to stop damage.”
Most state wildlife agencies have already formed task forces or coalitions to address feral swine, he explains. “We’re not going into states and deciding what needs to be done; we make recommendations on what could be done and what’s reasonable to achieve. Then we decide what we can fund.”
This is the first time the USDA has addressed the pig problem on a national level, and most agree that it is better than nothing. Yet, with tax dollars on the line, Pinkston complains of government inefficiency and red tape—the classic private sector vs. public sector argument. There is, for example, little consistency in how states would use the money to control pigs. The Alabama trapping guidelines, for example, recommend a 3-foot “continuous catch” door that is activated by a trip wire and therefore all but certain not to capture more than a few pigs at a time. Meanwhile, Florida Wildlife Services is buying box traps built by prison work programs. Box traps are the most ineffective trap style of all for catching an entire sounder.
Pinkston wants a national whole-sounder removal standard. He contends that it takes about the same amount of time and effort to kill 100 percent of an area’s pigs as it does 80 percent. “We’re trying to show that elimination can be done,” he says. “If you were Terminix and you only got rid of 80 percent of the termites, you’d get fired. If they know the systems they’re using now aren’t the best, why are they wasting taxpayer dollars on it?”
Ditchkoff points out that if the goal of an agency is pig elimination and it’s not using whole-sounder removal, then yes, taxpayer dollars are being wasted. But again, the federal program’s goal is damage control.
“Look at it this way,” Ditchkoff says. “I’ve got a farmer out there, and I’m going to throw $5,000 into killing as many pigs as I can. I won’t get rid of them. But I am going to save him thousands in crop damage that year. That’s where a lot of agencies are looking and saying, ‘This is the best bang for our buck.’”
Don’t Kill ’Em Just for Fun
Photograph by Russell Graves
In states threatened but not already overrun by swine, containment is the goal. The latest approach for that—one implemented in Kansas and, more recently, Tennessee—is to outlaw recreational pig hunting.
If you’ve read or watched any of the hyped-up pig-bomb reports over the past few years, you might believe that hogs are spreading into new areas like an airborne pandemic. They’re not. Pigs have lived in the Southeast since the 1500s. They didn’t suddenly decide to walk from Florida to Michigan.
No, there’s an undeniable correlation between the wild pig’s spread in the past few decades and its glamorization as a big-game animal. Most new pig problems can be blamed on escaped animals from high-fence operations or illegal stockings by outfitters and hunters to create recreational opportunities. It’s a situation that Chuck Yost, the deer and wild hog program coordinator for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA), knows well.
Tennessee isn’t teeming with hogs, but there is a well-established population in the southeastern part of the state—along with a strong hog hunting culture. For years, Tennessee managed hogs as an additional big-game opportunity. New pockets of pigs appeared throughout the state as rogue hunters planted them to establish new populations. Releasing pigs is illegal, but the prohibition is difficult to enforce. The TWRA needed to remove the incentive, says Yost. “We began looking around the country, and in about every case where hog hunting opportunity was increased, the pig problem got worse.” Tennessee outlawed recreational pig hunting in 2011.
Landowners can still shoot pigs on sight on their property. Hunters can shoot pigs if they see them during controlled hunts on select WMAs with established pig populations. Aside from that, pig hunting is illegal.
The new strategy has been a success. Landowners who do have a pig problem are given the full range of options for killing them—baiting, trapping, night shooting—provided they first receive an exemption from the TWRA and monitor their results.
Yost says the new approach has eliminated some small pockets of pigs, and slowed the illegal stocking. But the public relations aspect has been challenging. People have been hunting pigs in the South for a long time. “We’re trying to change the culture,” he says. “And that’s a tall order. Hog hunters don’t like it, and the notion of a wildlife agency managing pigs by reducing hunting seems counterintuitive for many people.”
Photograph by Russell Graves
Pig hunting is a hell of a lot of fun. I personally have chased them with dogs and spears, stalked them with a bow, and shot them at night with the Jager Pro guys. It’s always been a ball. The problem is that pigs wreak havoc on habitat and threaten native game species that hunters have worked hard to conserve.
But a solution to the pig problem is within reach. With the right equipment and tactics, we can eliminate the small pockets of pigs that are appearing across the country. Nolte says a top priority of the new federal program is eradication in states with low feral swine numbers. The Midwest doesn’t have to have a wild pig infestation—if we act now.
In the Deep South, eradication is unrealistic. Taxpayer-funded trapping and night shooting can mitigate crop damage, and we should make those efforts as efficient as possible with help from experts like Pinkston and Ditchkoff. But if you want to shoot pigs for fun, the farther south the better.
Florida’s half million pigs are second only to deer in hunting popularity. Tom Walker (now retired) had one of the state’s largest hog hunting outfits. “Everybody wants an affordable hunt with high odds of success. And that’s pigs,” he says. But he acknowledges that the desire to hunt them can create problems. “Nobody is going to hurt Florida by planting pigs for hunting. But you don’t want them being moved to southern Ohio, either.”
Pinkston believes it’s time to draw a line in the sand and outlaw recreational pig hunting in every state north of Tennessee, while educating hunters and farmers about the pig problem and how to stop it. “If hunters don’t become a part of the solution, they’ll be considered part of the problem,” he says.
No one should feel guilty for enjoying pig hunting where it makes sense. But when that farmer with the new pig problem asks you for help, you have a decision to make: Are you going to shoot a few pigs for fun or are you going to get serious about eradicating an invasive species? Because there’s a difference.
PIG PROBLEM BY NUMBERS
➤ $1.5 billion: Estimated annual costs in crop damage caused by feral pigs
➤ $20 billion: Stephen Ditchkoff’s estimate for the overall cost of the feral swine problem, including ecological damage
➤ $20 million: Annual amount the USDA is spending on pig control
➤ 2,000–3,000: Number of pig hunters Tom Walker guided in peak years
➤ 114 days: Gestation period of wild pigs
➤ 1 year: Time it takes for two wild pigs (boar and sow) to become 25 or more wild pigs