Feds Join in Pork Project
New Mexico receiving government aid in fight to eradicate feral hogs
Feral hogs are known to carry more than 30 diseases harmful to humans, livestock and other wildlife. (Courtesy New Mexico State University)
Look out, pigs. Here come the feds – or at least their money.
Feral hogs – forever the bane of hunters, landowners and, well, everybody -- are found in more than three quarters of the United States and are responsible for an estimated $1.5 billion in damage yearly. And while their numbers are expanding, federal and state land managers in New Mexico are hoping they stop the growing tide of pork in their state and use what they’ve learned to assist other states as well.
A total of $1 million in federal funds has been set aside for a yearlong project aimed at eradicating the pigs in New Mexico. It marks the first time the U.S. Department of Agriculture has teamed up with a state in order to develop a comprehensive plan for getting rid of the pigs.
“I commissioned a study on the feral hog problem in 2011 to determine the distribution of feral hogs on state trust lands because they were becoming a threat to domestic livestock, native wildlife and human healthy, as well as posing an economic threat,” New Mexico State Land Commissioner Ray Powell, who is also a veterinarian, said in February. “We need to get a handle on this problem now, and this money moves us closer to our goal of removing them from our state.”
Wildlife managers and landowners have used various techniques against feral swine for decades with little success. But the large team of state and federal employees in New Mexico is focusing on finding what works best in which circumstances in order to stalk, trap and kill the pigs.
“In January, we began meeting with some of our employees, teaming them and discussing with them the best way to go at them,” said Alan May, New Mexico’s USDA Wildlife Services. “Since February, we have been hard at work, eradicating feral hogs.
“Our immediate goal is prevent a lot of the damage that we know will be coming if we don't do anything about it. Sport hunting pressure alone won’t be enough to stop a population from spreading.”
May said there are a couple reasons USDA selected New Mexico for the project. One was the New Mexico Feral Hog Task Force, which was set in motion by Powell in 2011 and involved several state and federal agencies.
“Secondly, eradication here is doable,” May said. “In some states, the population has reached the point where they’re just trying to control them. We know we can get rid of them and then work to keep the state feral swine free.”
It will not be an easy task. While feral hogs have been reported in 22 of New Mexico’s 33 counties and many areas of the state contain no pigs, they have a reputation for spreading.
The wild pig population in the United States has ballooned to more than 5 million, and officials say that number will continue to grow if the problem is not confronted.
Feral swine are prolific reproducing machines. The animals may start breeding when they’re just 6 months old. They breed year round and can produce as many as 30 piglets in a year.
There are an estimated 2.6 million feral hogs in Texas, where about $7 million is spent per year trying to control them. An estimated 750,000 of the pigs were killed in the state during 2010. It barely made a dent in the population.
In a recent report, Texas A&M scientists estimate that the population of feral hogs in the state alone could triple within five years if left unchecked. Even with a “high harvest” rate of 41 percent, the wild pig population would still grow by 12 percent each year.
"We are not going to eradicate them,” said Billy Higginbotham of the Texas Extension Cooperative who is also a wildlife specialist and a professor at Texas A&M. “What our hope is that we can reduce their population to reduce damage."
There is seemingly nothing feral hog herds cannot annoy or disrupt.
Farmers complain that they uproot and destroy crops, not to mention spreading noxious weeds by carrying seeds to new spots. Their wallow spots turn into craters and are hazards to tractors and trucks in fields and on dirt roads.
In some areas, they have moved from destroying pastures and crops to tearing up suburban gardens.
For hunters, the wild hogs compete against – and usually defeat – desired wild game animals for food, typically driving them from the area. That causes added problems for species already under stress from extended drought much of the nation has faced the past three years.
Several endangered species, including sand dune lizards and lesser prairie chickens in New Mexico, are on the menu for feral hogs.
And hogs are known to carry more than 30 diseases harmful to humans, livestock and other wildlife.
Introduced by Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto to what is now Florida in 1539, the pigs quickly spread their range. Complicating matters more was importation of Eurasian boars into the U.S. for game in the early 20th century. They have evolved into survivors, existing in most climates and eating almost anything.
Exasperating the problem is, while annoying, feral hogs are very, very intelligent.
Half-hearted efforts for capture are quickly sniffed out by the pigs. They watch traps for days before sending in a lesser member of the group to test for danger. Once trapped, many times they find a way out and have been known to climb out of enclosures 5 and 6 feet tall. On ranches in New Mexico, pigs have learned to break floats in livestock water tanks to keep water flowing for their wallow spots.
“If they had the dexterity, they’d be driving vehicles around,” Powell told The Associated Press. “I mean these guys are really smart.”
“And it’s very hard to predict their activity,” May said. “The hogs here make huge circles (in their travels) and they may not visit a particular watering area for two to four weeks at a time.”
One of the first tactics being used in New Mexico is the “Judas pig.” After a family of pigs is trapped, all by one – usually an adult female – are shot and killed. The Judas pig is then fitted with a radio collar or microchip and released. It can then be tracked as it looks for another clan of pigs with which to join. The GPS data can then allow the team to converge on another group.
In the Florida Everglades, Judas pigs have allowed researchers to learn that feral pigs raid alligator nests, are not all nocturnal as suspected and have unpredictable movements.
“It’s a really valuable tool for us,” May said. “It’s an easy way to find additional herds.”
May also said nothing is off the board when it comes to stalking and killing New Mexico’s feral hogs.
“We use trail cams. We’ve got bait stations, bait tubes, corral traps, box traps, even snare traps in some cases,” he said. “I don’t have any numbers at this point, but by all indications, the program is working. We’ve got lots of good, hard-working guys who are working 24-7 to make sure it’s a success.”