State tries to reduce ferril hog numbers
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State tries to reduce ferril hog numbers

Date: March 13, 2007
By: Gavin Off
State Capitol Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Some 13 years ago, during an afternoon scouting trip in the southeast Missouri woods, hunter Allen Morris met his match. 

Morris, who was unarmed and scouting for the upcoming deer season, had spent an hour trekking through the Mingo National Wildlife Refuge looking for deer tracks.

A quietness hung over the woods, said Morris, adding the day's scout was unfolding like any other.

Then, a rustle came from the surrounding brush. Seconds later, a huge wild hog emerged and began charging Morris.

"I found a tree within the first 20 yards," Morris said.

Morris stayed in the tree for only a few seconds as he watched the hog disappear through the brush. He climbed down and left the refuge, looking to tell a game warden about the wild pig.

A hunter shot and killed the hog a couple weeks later -- and found it to be about 400 pounds.

Missouri is home to an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 feral, or wild hogs, said Rex Martensen, field program supervisor for the Missouri Conservation Department.

They're an exotic, invasive species and stem mostly from the release or escapement of domestic pigs.  

Feral hogs, also known as wild boars, are not native to either Missouri or the U.S.  The U.S. Agriculture Department reports they are native to Eurasia and where first introduced into North American in the 1500s.  In Missouri, Martensen said feral hogs began appearing from domesticated animals since at least the 1980s.

Martensen said they destroy everything from wetlands to agricultural crops, carry diseases -- including some that could infect humans -- and eat anything from acorns, mushrooms and worms to fungus and young deer.

"They are the worst animals on the face of the earth," Morris said.

Hunting, for the most part, has held their numbers in check in the last few decades.

That was until recently.

Denise Brown, assistant director for the Conservation Department, said asking hunters to shoot wild hogs while the hunters are tracking other game, simply isn't working. Hogs have few natural predators and reproduce quickly. Isolated hog populations are thriving, while others are popping up across Missouri.

"They are so prolific," Brown said. "Asking the hunters to help us just isn't getting it done."

The Conservation Department, at its commission meeting Friday, will unveil a comprehensive proposal to eliminate feral hogs from its conservation areas. Representatives from the Missouri Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Agriculture will join conservation officials.

Martensen said the department would use live traps, areal gunning from helicopters, tracking dogs, shooting over bait and Judas pigs to kill the hogs. Judas pigs are wild hogs caught and fitted with a tracking devise before being released and -- the department hopes -- reunited with their herds. Hunters would then know where to find other hogs.

If commissioners don't raise any major objections, Martensen said the plan would begin immediately.

Martensen said he didn't know the cost of implementing the plan, but said since the department would concentrate solely on its conservation areas, it would be far less expensive than a statewide proposal. 

He said the proposal indicates the seriousness of Missouri's wild hog situation.

Martensen said it would take such a multi-pronged approach to reduce hog numbers. Sharpshooting from helicopters, for instance, might not work in heavy woods. And some say the hogs learn to change their habits to avoid hunters.

Like the rest of the state, Lake Wappapello State Park, a 44,000-acre park in Wayne County in southeast Missouri, couldn't tackle its hog problem with just hunting, said James Gracey, the park's natural resources specialist.

"They were patterning the hunters, as much as the hunters were patterning them," Gracey said.

At its peak, the park's hog populations numbered around 750, Gracey estimated.

Two years ago, park officials began trapping hogs with the help of the U.S. Agricultural Department. Now, Gracey estimated the hog population is down 60 percent to 75 percent.

Trapping worked so well, Gracey said he no longer favors using sport hunting to control feral hog numbers.

Martensen also has reservations about hunting hogs. He said the state has caught some hunters and trackers releasing domestic pigs into the wild so they could be shot in different areas of the state. That's one way to explain why isolated hog populations are showing up across Missouri.

For the most part, established wild hog populations are located in south Missouri, though officials are increasingly spotting them in central Missouri and in some northern counties.

"Folks thought, 'well if we could get them established closer to home, we could hunt them when we want,'" Martensen said. "You really can't explain it unless someone hauled them in and let them loose."

Said Gracey: "These things just came out of nowhere. They just all of a sudden showed up, and they don't have wings to fly."

Wild hogs don't only raise environmental concerns. They're also dangerous to pets, livestock and humans.

Tom Hutton, wildlife disease biologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said feral hogs carry 30 viral and bacterial diseases and 37 parasites that affect people, pets, livestock and wildlife.

Brucellosis is one of the most worrisome diseases feral hogs carry. Brucellosis is a bacterial disease that could cause domestic pigs to have abortions and humans to contract fevers. Hutton said humans typically get infected when cleaning a disease-carrying hog.

"It can be life-threatening if it's not treated," Hutton said.

Wild hogs also carry pseudorabies. Although the disease does not affect humans, Hutton said it could infect livestock, forcing farmers to euthanize their entire herd.

Of Texas' 2 million feral hogs, some 10 percent to 30 percent carry brucellosis and some 20 percent to 30 percent carry pseudorabies, said Hutton, adding they cause an estimated $52 million in damage annually to the environment and agriculture.

Missouri's hogs, so far, have had no major outbreaks of either disease.

"If our population would grow and get to where it's continuous with those populations down south, undoubtedly diseases in our feral swine would increase," Hutton said. "It may take a long time to develop, but unless we get really serious about eliminating the population we have now, we're likely to end up in the same state Texas is in 20 years from now."

The Missouri Conservation Commission will hold its regular meeting at 8:30 a.m. Friday at the Lodge of Four Seasons in Lake Ozark.