Farming on hog country

Larry Campbell wants his farm back. 

For the past 18 years, he’s been raising livestock on 600 acres surrounded by the Bell Mountain Wilderness area in Iron County, Mo. His cattle herd is thriving on the farm’s secluded pastures, but nothing he tries to plant here will survive. He’s tried to grow alfalfa and failed. His corn crops were a total loss. He can’t even harvest hay anymore.

Feral hogs have made those efforts futile.

“Anywhere I try to plant, the pigs will root it all up,” Campbell said. “What’s more, they root all the rocks to the top, which tears up your equipment. You can ruin disc mowers, rake teeth and baler pick-up bands. Where you’d been doing hay for 10 years, all of a sudden you can’t anymore. It’s gotten so bad I can’t even bush-hog. Those boars will dig ruts a foot and a half deep, and you can’t see that in the tall grass.”

Campbell isn’t alone in his feud with feral hogs, which can be found in at least 37 Missouri counties. These invasive, non-native pests first became an is­sue in the early 1990s after wild swine were released in the southern part of the state to establish hunting populations, according to Missouri Department of Conservation officials. Most feral hogs in Missouri are hybrids, genetic combinations that include Eurasian wild hogs along with an assortment of domestic varieties.

Between natural reproduction and continued illegal releases, the feral hog population exploded. Adult hogs have few predators and are very hardy, so natural mortality rates are low.

Plus, their numbers multiply quick­ly. Females are able to reproduce at 6 months of age, and they can have two litters of four to eight piglets every 12 to 18 months. Their annual popula­tion growth rate can reach 166% if no removal efforts are made.

“It doesn’t take long for one pig to turn into a whole bunch of pigs,” Campbell said. “They multiply like crazy and spread like crazy.”

Campbell’s farm is in the heart of hog country in southeastern Missouri, where the majority of the state’s wild pigs roam. This region is where nearly half of the 29 hog trappers employed by the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) are stationed. Their job? Eliminate the problem.

One of those trappers is Eli Holmes, a USDA wildlife specialist who trapped and killed 187 feral hogs on Campbell’s property alone this past year and around 2,100 throughout his three-county territory from October 2018 to October 2019.

“The terrain in this area helps the hogs thrive and multiply,” Holmes said. “There’s so much Forest Service land, so much wilderness and so many places to hide, away from humans.”

Trapping—not hunting—is the recommended removal method for feral hogs, Holmes emphasized. While it may seem counterintuitive, he explained, hunting and shooting feral hogs actually increases their numbers and distribu­tion because of illegal releases of more animals into the wild for future hunting opportunities. It also scatters the hogs and can interfere with trapping efforts.

Feral hogs travel in groups called sounders, generally comprised of a few related adult females and their piglets, which can number 20 animals or more. Holmes and other USDA-APHIS hog trappers will capture and annihilate a whole sounder at once, while hunters typically only get a few hogs at a time. Holmes has found as many as 37 in one trap.

“You can condition the pigs to come to a certain bait site before you build a trap, and the sounder will stay together so you can kill them all,” he said. “If you’re hunting, realistically you’re only going to kill two or three at the most, and then the other ones are going to scatter and become educated. Trapping is more suc­cessful in getting rid of larger numbers of pigs.”

The fight against feral hogs has escalated over the past several years in Missouri and other states where these animals have become a serious nuisance. In 2015, a collaboration of state, local and federal govern­ment agencies formed the Missouri Feral Hog Part­nership and created a strategic eradication plan. MDC banned the hunting of wild pigs on its 1,000 conserva­tion areas across the state in 2016, directing the public to follow a “Report, Don’t Shoot” strategy. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers followed suit.

Most recently, the U.S. Forest Service is considering similar policy in a controversial proposal that would close hog hunting on the 1.4 million acres of the Mark Twain National Forest, which has the state’s largest population of feral swine. The proposal was open for public comment over the summer with more than 1,000 responses. At press time, the Forest Service was still processing those comments and considering whether to enact the ban.

One of the concerns is that a hunting ban would lead to “safe spaces” for pigs, but Holmes said that’s not the case. It would allow him and the other trappers to get into the Forest Service areas and get their job done without being harassed or the pigs being chased off before they are caught.

“A lot of people are upset about banning hog hunting in the forest land, and I under­stand where they’re coming from,” Campbell said. “I’ve hunted hogs, and it’s fun. But that doesn’t outweigh the damage they can do. Trapping them is a much better plan.”

As he knows all too well, feral hog damage can be widespread, showing up in croplands, pastures and more. As few as 10 hogs can destroy 20 to 30 acres of crops in one night as well as fencing, feeders and waterers. They wallow in wet areas near ponds, streams and wetlands, fouling water sources, and they compete directly with native wildlife for food and water, particularly with deer and turkey for acorns.

“Feral hogs will eat almost anything they come across,” Holmes said. “If there were no efforts to stop the hogs, desirable wildlife would be on a downhill slide quick. Especially in the wintertime, deer and turkey rely on that acorn crop. It’s nothing for hogs to move in an area and just wipe it out.”

One of the biggest concerns for agriculture is the spread of disease, he added. Feral hogs carry more than 30 diseases and parasites, and many of them are transmissible to livestock, wildlife, pets and humans. Two diseases prevalent in feral hogs, pseu­dorabies and brucellosis, have been eradicated in the U.S. domestic swine industry. However, reintroduction through contact with feral hogs could be economically disastrous.

The USDA-APHIS trapping program has been at work on Campbell’s property for about 18 years now, and he believes it’s working. The hogs aren’t gone, but he said their populations have definitely dwindled.

“It’s aggravating, but I think we’re gaining,” Campbell said. “I have probably at least 60% fewer hogs or signs of hogs than even three years ago. And if I see hogs, Eli puts a trap out, and they’re nonexistent in about three days. He easily takes care of them.”

Holmes agrees that more trapping and less hunting are making a mark on Missouri’s feral swine population, although their rapid reproduction makes exact numbers hard to pinpoint. Statewide, there were 9,161 hogs killed by trappers from January through October 2019, according to MDC. That’s on par with the 9,365 killed in 2018.

“When I first started, especially this area, it seemed like there were pigs every­where,” Holmes said. “It wasn’t hard to go out and find pigs to trap. Since we’ve been able to get more trappers on board, it’s definitely been harder to find pigs. It might be small, but it feels like we’re making an impact.”

While hog pressure is lower in the fall and early winter when there are plenty of acorns to eat, Campbell said he usually starts seeing the porcine pests start rooting around his farm in January and February as food sources become scarce. Spring and summer are the busiest times for Holmes to capture hogs, typically running 12 to 15 traps at a time.

MDC and USDA encourage farmers and landown­ers to report all feral hog sightings by visiting mdc. mo.gov/feralhog or by calling 573-522-4115, ext. 3296. The agencies will assist in trapping and eradi­cating the entire sounder.

“There’s no mistaking pig damage once you see it,” Holmes said. “Definitely get in touch with us. We’ll set up a meeting to see where the damage is, and we can start baiting them and get a trap up pretty quick.”

Eliminating Missouri’s feral hog problem will take everyone working together in this common strategy, Holmes added. It won’t be quick or easy, he said, but the goal is possible to achieve.

“Southwest Missouri is a prime example,” Holmes said. “Five years ago, there was an established popula­tion. Now, in certain parts of the region, they’re only chasing a few single boars. That’s why a hunting ban is so important. If you achieve extirpation, we don’t want them to show back up because they’ve been hauled in or scattered by hunting pressure. When we check an area off our list, we want it to stay off our list.”

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