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Eugene Weekly : Coverstory : 2.5.2009

 

Hog Wild

Oregon’s feral pig population may be about to explode

By Camilla Mortensen

They wallow, grunt and eat almost anything they can stuff in their chops. They make a mess, tearing up the grass, spreading diseases and potentially costing the state millions. Feral pigs are more destructive than a horde of drunken college kids on a spring break bender, and they’re even harder to get rid of.

These aren’t the cute pink cuddly pigs of Babe and Charlotte’s Web. Sus scrofa are dark and bristly with cloven hooves and sharp curving tusks that can grow up to nine inches long. Scientists call them feral; hunters call them wild. Call them swine, hogs, pigs or boars, call them what you want, but Oregon calls them an invasive species and has come up with a Feral Swine Action Plan to get rid of the porky pests.

Feral pigs have been in Oregon for about 200 years, but biologists say they could soon go from unwelcome piggy guests to a full-blown porcine problem. They’re on Oregon’s “top 10 invasive species list” for their rototiller-like rooting, their ability to spread diseases to humans and other animals and their generally destructive nature. State agencies say now is the time to root out the problem, but how?

Known Feral Swine Locations in Oregon

 

The Historical Hog

The bald eagle may be the fierce and elegant symbol of the U.S., but the lowly pig figures heavily in our history. Wall Street, which has caused Americans more than a little trouble lately, is actually named for the wall that was built to stop New York’s free roaming pigs from entering into the colony of Manhattan. 

Swine are not native to North America; domestic pigs were introduced to the U.S. by early explorers looking to establish an easy food supply. Christopher Columbus brought swine on his voyages. The explorer Hernando de Soto’s herd of 13 pigs in Florida swiftly grew to 700 in three years. The feral descendants of those pigs and others roam throughout the South to this day and are often called “razorbacks.”

Native Americans soon came to appreciate pork, and they too assisted in the spread of the swine. And as European settlers moved west, so did their pigs. According the Feral Swine Action Plan, when the first settlers came to Astoria in 1811, they brought their pigs, some of which soon escaped and became in the words of one of the settlers, “a large and troublesome pack of swine.”

Oregon’s feral pigs are a mix of the sort of farm-raised pigs (the cuter, pinker ones) that were domesticated thousands of years ago and wild boars (the hairy, tusked ones), which have no history of domestication and were imported for sport hunting in the 1900s and later. Some of Oregon’s feral swine have strong wild boar traits, such as aggression, which could come either from boars intentionally released by hunters or from boars crossing the border from California. 

 

This Little Piggy was a Problem

Rick Boatner, invasive species and wildlife integrity coordinator for ODFW, estimates Oregon’s feral pig population at about 1,000 to 2,000 pigs romping around on both private and public lands. Most of these, he says, are on private property. This sounds like an insignificant number of invading piggies, but Mark Sytsma, author of the Action Plan, says that the population can dramatically increase. It’s common for there to be a “long latent period” before an invasive species has a population explosion, he says. Since feral pigs can breed before they are a year old, have two litters a year and can have five to 12 piglets in a litter, it’s easy to see how 1,000 pigs could quickly become an overpopulation of pork.

Sheer numbers aside, what’s the problem with herds of bacon wandering Oregon’s forests and fields? Turns out, there are lots of problems. A herd of feral hogs is actually called a “sounder,” and a sounder sounds like a big pig problem for everything from agriculture to wildlife.

Sytsma says that the feral pigs tear up the land, rooting for tubers and roots, “They like that nice moist, wet soil.” They are a problem for farmers because “they’ll get in where you irrigate,” he says. “It’s really like a smorgasbord for them.”

Feral swine cause about $800 million a year in losses to U.S. agriculture with their rooting and eating. According to Sytsma’s report, “Many of the top 40 Oregon crops are favorites of feral swine worldwide.” In addition to grain and wheat, feral swine are fans of grass. If the wild hogs go rooting after Oregon’s $500 million a year grass seed industry, the losses could be tremendous. Proponents of field burning say they light their grass seed fields on fire to get rid of pests, but it’s doubtful barbecuing feral pigs in field burns would solve the hog problem.

Sytsma says the feral pigs also damage riparian areas — areas near streams and waterways — with their wallowing. They disturb native habitats, cause soil erosion and allow invasive plants to take root. He says, “If a pig gets in there and roots it up and disturbs it, it opens up space for the weed seeds.” They eat the acorns from endangered white oak savannas and compete with or even prey on other wildlife for food. 

Pigs are, well, pigs, and Boatner says, “They’ll eat just about anything they can get; they’re not too picky.” He says they’ll even kill and eat young lambs and fawns.

And it’s not just what they eat that’s the problem; it’s also what they carry. Feral pigs can transmit diseases to livestock and wildlife. They can carry pseudorabies, swine brucellosis and foot and mouth disease. They can transmit to humans a whole host of vile sounding illnesses: brucellosis, balantidiasis, leptospirosis, salmnellosis, toxoplasmosis, trichinosis, trichostrongylosis, tuberculosis, tularemia, anthrax, rabies and plague.

The 2006 E. coli spinach outbreak that sickened over 200 people and killed three was traced back to feral pigs in California. Sytsma says that had California gotten rid of the 1,000 or so feral pigs they had in the 1950s, the population would not have exploded to the more than 100,000 feral pigs the state has today. 

 

Cutting Out the Pork

So how hard can it be to get rid of 1,000 to 2,000 feral pigs? Hogs have poor eyesight but strong senses of smell and hearing, according to the ODFW’s feral swine fact sheet, making them not the easiest of animals to catch. They can hide in woods or thickets, coming out at dawn and dusk to feed.

But according to Roger Huffman of the Oregon Department of Agriculture, Oregon has had some success with feral pig eradication attempts. One eradication near Post in Eastern Oregon involved the use of hunters, live traps and aerial hunting. Data in Oregon’s Feral Swine Action plan says that most of the pigs were killed by hunters on private land.

According to Huffman, Sytsma and Boatner, the fact that so many of Oregon’s feral pigs are on private land is a big part of the problem. Feral pig populations have been found in north central Oregon near John Day and Madras and across southwest Oregon from Coos County on the coast to inland Klamath County. They have been found in Harney County and on Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. One sounder of pigs was supposedly spotted just over 100 miles from Eugene: In 1997 the ODFW says there was a an “unsubstantiated but highly credible report of feral swine moving through the KOA Campground at Lincoln City.”

Most of the swine that have been spotted were found on private land. Given the nature of the pigs — an aggressive, land destroying, livestock-killing, disease-carrying invasive species — one might assume that landowners would welcome whole-hog eradication. 

Not so, says Boatner of the ODFW. He says some landowners make money allowing hunters to stalk the elusive swine on their property. According to the website for Clover Creek Ranch, located near Madras, one of the areas ODFW lists as having a feral pig population, it will run you $800 to trophy hunt a 400 to 800 pound feral hog on the 2,200 acre ranch (and you’d better hope you shoot that hog at dawn because there’s an extra $100 fee for skinning after dark). The ranch also offers watusi, yaks, “meat hogs” and a variety of sheep and goats at varying prices for you to shoot, stuff and hang on a wall. 

Selling feral pig hunts “can be quite lucrative” says Boatner, making it difficult for state agencies to persuade hunters of the need to eradicate the hogs. ODFW and ODA aren’t even sure how many feral swine are on private property. “They’re really a tight-lipped community, and they’re not letting people in,” says Boatner. Pig hunters are even suspected of turning wild boars loose to add the feral pig population. Clover Creek Ranch did not return EW’s calls before press time.

According to a 2007 pest risk assessment for feral pigs in Oregon, while pig hunts can bring thousands of dollars into a state’s economy, the agricultural impacts alone would cost the state far more. The U.S. spends less than $1 million a year on controlling feral pigs but loses 800 times that in pig damages. 

Despite the thousands that the pig problem could cost Oregonians, the Feral Swine Action Plan hasn’t really been getting any action, says Sytsma. The plan calls for legislation to control the source of the swine, population assessment, eradication and monitoring to prevent the pigs from returning, but all these things cost money, and funding is in short supply.

The one thing that has happened is House Bill 2221, which was recently introduced to Oregon’s Legislature by Gov. Ted Kulongoski on behalf of ODFW. The bill would make the sale or purchase of feral swine hunts illegal, with both fines and the loss of hunting licenses as punishment. It would also make it illegal for landowners to “knowingly” let feral swine roam their lands. 

So what to do if you have a pig problem on your property or see a set of hog tusks flash by while you’re out on a hike? Call (800) INVADERS, the Invasive Species Hotline. ODA’s Huffman says hunters could still hunt the pigs under HB 2221; they just can’t pay to hunt. The bill, he says, “takes away the incentive to harbor” a hog. He says, “There’s lots of hunters on our lists willing and able to help at a moment’s notice” and turn Oregon’s potential pig predicament into spare ribs in the sky.

 

Pigs aren’t Oregon’s only invasive species. Go to www.oregon.gov/OISC/most_dangerous.shtml for the top 100 invaders from mute swans to the “unnamed estuarine snail in Coos Bay.”