Forces fighting the national war on feral hogs can boast a series of minor victories in small skirmishes, but the swine are still dug-in across a wide territory. That’s the main take-away from the 2022 International Wild Pig Conference, a recent gathering of agencies committed to dealing with the feral swine problem. But I also noted an encouraging development since my last report from this conference in 2016: a cohesive alliance of anti-pig forces that did not exist until recently.
“Before 10 years ago, there were very inconsistent thoughts on pigs across states, across agencies. Do we love or hate pigs?” said Dr. Gray Anderson, chair of the National Wild Pig Task Force that organizes the conference. “We reached a milestone where we are very consistent in our management. Wild pig management is mainstream, it’s operationalized. Now, it’s just what we do.”
Dr. Anderson mentioned success in some states with light hog populations at reducing those to even smaller pockets and reducing agricultural and other damage in states that are saturated with pigs.
“But my biggest concern is really mission fatigue,” he said. “After 10 years of fighting this fight, we’re starting to see people wonder if they can keep it up. We have to do everything we can to keep fighting this fight and maintain these efforts for the long term.”
There’s another side of this war that is barely documented in this conference: the local militia. Landowners and deer hunters impacted by feral hogs are learning to deploy effective tactics against pigs on their own. It’s for these fighters that I want to share 10 noteworthy pieces of intelligence I learned at the conference regarding feral hog biology, new weapons, tactics, and more. This information may help you join or stay in the fight against these destructive, non-native marauders.
Feral Hog Diets
In earlier times, a biologist who wanted to study the feral hog diet faced unpleasant hours of picking through hog stomach contents to identify components. These days, researchers can use DNA metabarcoding to detect species that make up complex samples. Vienna Canright, a master’s student at the University of Georgia, did this with samples from 219 adult wild pigs killed from June 2017 to September 2018 on the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.
Plants were the predominant component, found in 100% of samples, with 56 plant families represented and more than 180 species. Hard mast was a big portion of this, especially in fall and winter, but throughout the year significant portions were forbs (including legumes), woody vines, shrubs and soft mast. In other words, acorns are only part of the picture of how feral hogs compete with whitetails for food, since all of these categories are important deer foods.
Vertebrate DNA also appeared but in only 8% of the samples. Of 18 vertebrate species, 70% of those were amphibians like tree frogs, leopard frogs, chorus frogs, toads, salamanders and skinks. Mammals, reptiles and birds were also detected but in much lower frequencies. Notably, turkey DNA appeared in only one sample, and that was from January, suggesting it came from a scavenged adult turkey carcass, not from a raided turkey nest.
Is Corn King?
If you set out to control feral hogs through trapping, is there a bait that beats corn? A study by the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department said… Nope. Across most seasons and conditions, corn was the preferred bait, though peanuts and earthworms ranked almost as high. Lee Williamson said corn should be your default bait, but if its effectiveness drops, try mixing in peanuts or earthworms with the corn.
Feral hogs can carry a huge number of diseases that potentially affect other animals, livestock and people. USDA Wildlife Services reports that approximately 30% of feral hogs they have examined in the United States tested positive for brucellosis, a bacterial disease that can affect people.
To prevent transmission, wear nitrile gloves and eye protection when handling or cleaning a feral hog to prevent hog blood or fluids from contacting cuts on your skin or getting in your eyes. Wash your hands and skinning equipment thoroughly when you’re done. Finally, do not eat undercooked feral pork.
Update on Pig Toxicants
For years, rumors have circulated among anti-hog forces that a new weapon is on the horizon: toxic baits that are deadly on hogs and will soon be legal for deployment. It’s true the USDA and some university labs are testing toxicants that could be deployed against feral hogs. But this work has been going on for almost 20 years.
At the 2016 conference, I heard the EPA could approve sodium nitrite for registered use as early as 2021. At the recent conference, that prediction has moved to 2025. The can keeps getting kicked down the road, and there are still many issues to resolve: Finding delivery baits that get hogs to eat fatal doses of the toxin; designing feeders that only hogs can access to prevent non-target mortality; bear-proofing those feeders for use in bear territory; preventing spillage of bait crumbs that kill birds, and more.
Even if sodium nitrite or other toxicants are one day approved for use, there are several reasons why I think it won’t turn the tide in your local battle.
First, it will likely be for registered use only by licensed pesticide applicators, such as wildlife and agriculture agencies. Sorry, but it will not be for sale next to the roach spray at the dollar store.
Second, it won’t be a simple tool to use. You still must pre-bait hogs with corn for several days and get them conditioned to feeding around and opening a specialized feeder before you deploy the toxicant. If that sounds familiar, it’s because that’s the same conditioning approach used in catching whole sounders of pigs in a trap, which you could already be doing now. Plus, you can eat the hogs you kill in that trap (hogs that die of sodium nitrite poisoning, if they can be located, should not be consumed).
If you’re just a civilian deer hunter like me, forget toxicants for now. I look at them like aerial gunning: I know our allies are using helicopters in the fight against hogs, but I’ll never have one. Instead, I can be trapping and controlling hogs very effectively right now with tools we already have available.
Hunting Feral Hogs With Drones
Aerial gunning to kill hogs from helicopters works best in high-density hog populations and in open country or areas with large agricultural fields. A study by Justine Smith of the University of Georgia showed that helicopter gunning also tends to drive hogs to use more wooded cover and to become nocturnal, making it difficult for helicopters to mop up the hold-outs. It also gets more expensive as hog density drops, because the helicopters must fly around more to find the hogs. The cost per pig killed climbs higher as more pigs are removed.
Another report suggested a solution: Drones with thermal cameras. Luke Miller, a drone pilot and wildlife biologist with USDA who works with the Missouri Feral Hog Partnership, reported success by pairing drones with helicopters. It’s far cheaper to fly a drone carrying a thermal camera to locate scattered groups of hogs.
Once they’re located, the helicopter can take over. Drones can also spot hogs and then direct hunters on foot. Use of these drones in medium to high hog densities reduced costs by $66 to $111 per pig depending on weather conditions. But using them in low hog densities reduced costs by around $1,000 per kill.
Poor Man’s Grizzly
If you think the feral hog problem is mostly a Southern thing, you’d be right in the United States. But folks in Montana, North Dakota and Minnesota need to pay attention to a hotspot brewing just north of the border on the Canadian prairies.
Dr. Ryan Brook of the University of Saskatchewan provided an eye-opening update. Most of Canada’s hog problem originated from escapes and intentional releases from “wild boar farms” that were established in the 1980s and peaked in 2001 with around 500 farms and 32,000 captive animals. These animals are hybridizing with escaped domestic pigs. Data show occurrences of wild hogs in Canada are on an exponential curve upward (play the animated map below).
Sport hunting for hogs – known in Canada as the “Poor Man’s Grizzly” – is part of the problem. When a feral animal is seen as a recreational resource, some hunters work to grow the opportunity rather than control it. Two decades of open hunting seasons have done nothing to control hogs. The prairie provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba are worst hit, with Saskatchewan having an especially bad problem. Here, the Great Plains of Canada provide a pathway for hog expansion down into eastern Montana and western North Dakota.
“There isn’t a lot to limit their movements biologically,” said Ryan. “Their ability to move south across the U.S. border is largely unimpeded.”
Squeal on Pigs
Luckily, agencies along the U.S./Canada border are not idle. Justin Bush, Executive Coordinator of the Washington Invasive Species Council, outlined a program called “Squeal on Pigs,” a public relations campaign that urges the public to quickly notify wildlife agencies if they see feral hogs or learn of someone transporting and releasing them.
The idea is to facilitate a rapid response to cross-border migration or human-assisted introductions. Wildlife agencies in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana have adopted the Squeal on Pigs campaign. The Western Governors’ Association also convened a transboundary feral swine working group to promote vigilance.
To Hear More Gobblers, Stop the Squeal
At the conference, Matt McDonough of the Auburn University Deer Lab reported early results of a multi-year study of turkey population response to feral-hog control.
Matt and his co-researchers tracked turkey abundance on four large research sites in southeast Alabama while removing 1,851 hogs (one per 18 acres) through trapping and aerial shooting. They saw significant increases in turkey abundance on two of three study sites compared to the fourth site, the “control,” where no hogs were removed. Read a detailed report on this study.
Missouri Holds the Line
If there’s good news from the war on feral hogs, it came in a state report from Missouri, where the feral hog’s northward march ran into fierce resistance and has been pushed back. Hogs started becoming a problem in Missouri in the mid-1990s according to Alan Leary of the Missouri Department of Conservation. To help minimize illegal transport and release of hogs, Missouri started banning recreational hunting, first on state lands in 2016, then federal lands in 2019.
This clears the field for Missouri’s Feral Hog Elimination Partnership to trap and eliminate hogs without interference from sport hunting that can scatter and educate hogs. Landowners are strongly urged to report, not shoot at, any feral hogs they see to allow professional trappers to respond.
The Partnership has now removed more than 54,000 hogs since 2016, including 9,857 last year. From 2008 to 2020, the number of hogs killed climbed annually, but in 2021 it dropped for the first time – despite more effort. With fewer hogs to kill, finding them is tougher, so the agency is adapting strategies, such as using drones with thermal cameras to locate hogs and increase the effectiveness of helicopters.
In 2016, MDC estimated feral hogs occupied 11 million acres in Missouri. In 2020, that estimate declined by 60% to 4.5 million acres. Missouri proves that states with emerging hog populations can stop them from becoming established with coordinated control efforts.
Mississippi Legislative Victory
In states with more established hog populations, like Mississippi, the story is not as bright. Last year was the third year in a row the estimated wild hog harvest exceeded the deer harvest in Mississippi! This results from a combination of steadily climbing hog harvests and slowly declining deer harvests since 2000.
The good news is, this year Mississippi became the newest state to ban all transportation of live wild hogs on any public road in the state. This has been a priority issue in many states to help stop illegal transport and release, but it hasn’t been as easy to convince legislators. It took Mississippi 10 years, according to Ricky Flynt of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, to get the ban passed by the legislature.
Fight Feral Hogs
The National Deer Association believes feral hogs should be controlled wherever they occur to prevent habitat damage and competition with whitetails, turkeys and other native wildlife. We’ll keep working to support statewide bans on live-hog transportation, encourage funding for state and federal task forces, and share information with our members that helps you fight hogs where you hunt.