When Shakespeare penned his now famous Julius Caesar in 1599, he knew very little about the New World and what strange creatures may have roamed its regions.
But Russian boars and wild nefarious hogs did trample the English countryside at the time, though his famous “Cry Havoc and let loose the dogs of war” phrase gleaned from the pages of the play had nothing to do with swine or the Americas.
But 400 years later there’s an outcry all across the New World about feral swine that are growing in numbers radically, as is the damage and trouble they are causing on farms and ranches in at least 38 of the 50 states.
The feral swine problem is arguably worse in Texas than in other states; in the Lone Star State feral swine populations have been estimated to exceed two million and cause an estimated $59 million in damages to private and public land each year ($1.5 billion nationwide). And worse, both population numbers and the amount of damage are growing every year.
According to Texas A&M officials, feral hogs are opportunistic omnivores, meaning they feed on plant and animal matter in addition to being able to play the role of a scavenger. They are largely indiscriminant in their feeding habits and eat both vertebrate and invertebrate animals. Most of their diet is believed to be composed of vegetation, including crops. Small hogs may eat approximately five percent of their body weight daily — larger hogs an estimated three percent of body weight.
In addition to destroying cropland, they are notorious for wallowing-out watering holes, which may cause other animals to avoid these areas. During times of drought, however, all animals are often obliged to water from these areas. Infected pigs can spread parasites and diseases through both direct contact and by contaminating drinking water.
In addition, the feral hog population is a potential reservoir for numerous diseases and parasites that threaten livestock and deer. Feral pig populations are known to harbor diseases and parasites which can easily be transmitted to these species.
In Texas, and other states plagued the most by large feral swine populations, notably California and Florida, millions in public and private funds have been spent through the years in an effort to manage the problem. But as the problem escalates, so does the need for greater resources to fight them.
The New Mexico initiative
While USDA has been active in monitoring and working with states to help control feral swine populations, until now an all out federal effort to eradicate feral swine hasn’t been launched, and for good reason. The cost of attempting to eradicate the estimated two million feral swine in Texas, for example, would require a massive budget, larger perhaps than the entire budget for the State Department of Agriculture, and even then success would be difficult if not impossible given the numbers.
But that may not be true in New Mexico where feral swine are a relatively small though escalating problem. Population numbers are low, though growing rapidly.
“We think we have a pretty good shot at eradication of the feral swine population of New Mexico, says Alan May, State Director for USDA Wildlife Services in Albuquerque. “We don’t have the large numbers they do in Texas. “If we act early, we think we may be able to prevent an awfully lot of economic, environmental and public health problems associated with feral swine.”
May said that while eradication efforts would be concentrated to three specific areas where feral swine populations are the greatest, the undertaking of a comprehensive program involving trapping and hunting feral swine is a massive undertaking and would require local, state and federal participation.
After talking with various officials and private property owners in the three designated areas where swine problems are developing, officials representing the Mescalero Apache Indian Tribe and the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association, and various state and county officials petitioned USDA Under Secretary Edward Avalos for federal support of an initiative to declare war against the wild pig population of the state.
“Working through (USDA) Wildlife Services in New Mexico, the partners in this initiative asked for funding of a pilot project for addressing control methods of the feral swine problem there. USDA agreed to put $1 million into the project, but local partners are putting in $300,000 of their own, including in-kind services to expedite this initiative,” Under Secretary Avalos told Farm Press.
Avalos says New Mexico is the first state to tackle a comprehensive statewide project to eradicate the feral swine population and says he believes there is a good chance the program will be successful. He says with eradication as the objective, even a substantial reduction in feral swine numbers would represent a major success in helping the state minimize negative effects of the invasive species.
The three areas of concern in New Mexico include the middle Rio Grande Valley because of the large amount of irrigated agriculture subject to damage, the Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation near Ruidoso because the U.S. Forest Service is already doing some eradication work and on the reservation is a potential risk to water quality because of the large number of fresh water springs, and the Southeastern part of New Mexico from the Pecos River east to the Texas State line where feral swine populations are growing.
Avalos says the pilot program will run through the end of this fiscal year, which ends in September, but local officials hope to seek additional funding to keep the project going.
In response to a question about the use of toxicants to control feral swine populations, a practice that is growing in popularity in Australia, Avalos says the use of toxicants in the U.S. is against the law. But he says as part of their ongoing feral swine research, they have been in contact with a private Australian company that is promoting the use of sodium nitrate for eradication.
“We’re looking at all methods of feral swine management and the use of toxicants is one that deserves our scrutiny. But keep in mind, the process of testing through field trials on such things is extensive and it would be a number of years before approval could be secured from EPA and other agencies to use it commercially in the environment,” Avalos said.
Tyler Campbell, USDA/APHIS/NWRC in Gainesville, Fla., who has dedicated eight years to the study and research of feral swine in the U.S., says sodium nitrate may be a good choice for controlling swine populations in the wild.
“Sodium nitrate is commonly used to cure hams and sausage and used as a human food preservative, which might make it easier to pass rigorous EPA standards before approval is given for its use. The Australian company is Animal Control Technologies and they own the patent. We are working with them in developing feeder systems that are species specific for use with feral swine,” he said.
A feeder known as the “Hog Hopper” has two vertical doors that pigs can learn to push up to access the toxicant. Trials in the U.S. so far have been positive and Campbell says they may seek experimental use permits from EPA to conduct more comprehensive trials, but that could take up to two years before testing could be expanded.
Campbell works at USDA’s National Wildlife Research Lab, which is leading the way in feral swine research. So far 37 trials with the feeder have been conducted, but additional testing will be required before EPA would consider authorizing commercial use.
“We must make certain that only feral swine are targeted and other wildlife is protected when using any type of system of this nature, and that’s simply going to take time,” he added.
The New Mexico Initiative will use only traps and aerial hunting to lower feral swine numbers in the three designated areas.
Texas numbers are high
Just across the state line, rural property owners in Texas are reporting feral swine in the across the state are increasingly becoming a major problem and economic concern.
Many Texas farmers say feral hogs have become their worst pest problem. Large numbers of pigs routinely destroy cropland, pollute stock tanks and streams and tear up pastureland.
“We need a solution,” said Erik Akins, a northeast Texas grain farmer near Van Alstyne. “We need technology.” He said traps are not enough to control the population. “And it’s hard to get them to go into traps.”
Jay Norman, Wolfe City, Texas, said he began to see more feral hogs after Christmas than he’d seen all year. “I’ve seen bunches of 25 or more and they all look exactly alike.”
“We didn’t see many at all last summer,” added Pat Fallon. “Lately, the worst problems have been in our fields closer to town.”
“We don’t see them for awhile and then we let our guard down,” said Kenneth Griffin, who farms near Gunter, Texas.
Chico Light says the problem has become severe. “I’ve seen as many as 40 or 50 in a group,” he said. “They’re getting into everything, even wheat fields. They are worse every year.”
Farmers would like to see new approaches to a problem that continues to get worse. Sterilization should be considered, Akins said. They also would not rule out toxins, which are currently illegal, and would support research on sodium nitrate and the experimental hopper.
“We need a solution,” Light said.
Farmers hope that efforts in New Mexico and elsewhere at least point to potential solutions.
While total eradication of the New Mexico feral swine population may be a lofty goal, participants in the New Mexico Feral Swine Eradication Team say they are not wasting any time. May says six new federal employees were recently hired to work with the program and a team of researchers has already studied the areas where eradication efforts will take place to identify the best locations for traps and hunting expeditions.
“The sooner we get started the better success we will have,” May said.
In the meantime, neighboring officials in Arizona, Oklahoma and Colorado say they will keep an eye on how the program develops in New Mexico — in hopes of being able to initiate their own management and control programs to fight the ever growing problems associated with feral swine.