Wild hogs are causing problems in Missouri

Monday, October 27, 2008

POPLAR BLUFF, Mo. -- Missouri is battling an infestation of wild hogs, ecological wrecking balls that ruin crops and pastures and chase off other wildlife.

A state task force is looking for solutions, including criminalizing the release of hogs into the wild, and whether increasing the hunting of hogs has contributed to the problem.

The feral hog population exploded in the early 1990s when state conservation officials think some hunters began releasing pigs for recreational hunting. Officials estimate more than 10,000 hogs now range across about 20 southern Missouri counties.

In addition to destroying cropland and stock ponds, the hogs eat salamanders, young quail, turkeys and young deer and can spread devastating diseases to commercial hog farms.

"I tell people that if you're a deer hunter, a turkey hunter, or just an outdoor enthusiast, feral hogs are your enemy," said Rex Martensen, a field programs supervisor for the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Gov. Matt Blunt last year decided to go after the problem, forming a task force to come up with a way to get rid of the pigs, including making it a felony to intentionally release a feral hog on public or private land without some form of enclosure.

"Now is the time to solve this problem," Martensen said. "If we don't do it now, we may not get a handle on it."

Feral hogs aren't just a problem in Missouri as they've spread from their normal habitat in the South to as far away as Michigan and Ohio.

"Pork prices are down and have been for some time," said Carol Bannerman, a spokeswoman for U.S. Wildlife Services. "For many producers, it's just cheaper to leave the barn door open."

A local hog population can triple in one year, scientists say, and research indicates it's impossible to keep feral hog numbers in check without eliminating about 70 percent per year.

Texas officials, with an estimated 4 million hogs, have largely given up hope even as the hogs do more than $1 million in damage per year.

Most states and even the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have looked to hunt the problem away, a solution that instead appears to have encouraged hunters to buy wild hogs and turn them loose to give them more to hunt.

Enforcement agents with the Missouri Department of Conservation said they're convinced hunters are bringing hogs from Arkansas and Texas.

"They are migrating around the state for sure. But they're not the ones driving the trucks," said Mic Plunkett, a state conservation agent based in Wayne County.

Hunting wild hogs in Missouri is legal with the state encouraging people to "shoot on sight." There are few restrictions, hunting can be done all year and with any weapon. In addition, the sport has added attraction as feral hogs are considered smart, athletic and tough to catch.

Since January, the department of conservation has killed only about 500 feral hogs. They've responded to about 173 calls of feral hogs on private land during the past year.

Larry Hillis is among those dealing with the hogs. The Poplar Bluff car dealership owner planted corn and soybeans on 600 acres last year and included some rapeseed after a conservation agent said it would attract deer.

It brought in abbot 30 hogs as well: "Within two days, it looked as though someone had gone in there with a plow and dug the whole thing up," Hillis said.

State and federal land managers are trying various ways to capture the hogs, including traps, snares and shooting the hogs from aircraft. They've also tried trapping a single hog, fitting it with a radio collar and then allowing he so-called "Judas" pig to lead hunters to its herd.

Kansas officials tried dealing with its feral pig problem by banning hunting of them, convinced most of the hogs were being brought it from elsewhere. Missouri is not considering a similar strategy, Martensen said.

Blunt's task force is looking to beef up state statutes, which currently don't give conservation agents much authority to stop or arrest people for releasing feral hogs. The hogs are not considered "wildlife," which shifts responsibility to the state department of agriculture, which has authority over only "owned" or "confined" pigs.

While state officials come up with possible solutions, property owners will likely have to continue dealing with the pests. This year saw a good crop of acorns, among the hogs' favorite foods.

"I was told that you'd have to kill almost 75 percent of them to make a dent in their numbers," Hillis said. "That's worse than rabbits."


Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, http://www.stltoday.com

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