Feral hogs are an invasive species present in at least 35 states, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. They cause billions of dollars in crop damage each year, and their rooting causes widespread and lasting environmental damage, according to the USDA.
The porcine population bomb is exploding on farms and ranches, timberlands and suburban yards across the country. Sows become sexually mature at six months, and can drop two litters a year. The average litter size is six to 12 piglets. After reaching about two months old, the piglets have no natural predators. Adult hogs have no natural predators, other than man.
Hogs are omnivores, eating just about anything including plants, small animals and carrion.
Sam Upchurch, owner of Grey Rocks Ranch in Autauga County, talks about damage feral hogs inflict on the 5,700 acre ranch.Marty Roney/Advertiser
Grey Rocks Ranch is a sprawling spread of about 5,700 acres in western Autauga County. Sam Upchurch’s late parents built the ranch into a nationally recognized operation raising Santa Gertrudis cattle. Few cattle are raised here now. The ranch is now intensely managed for wildlife; deer, turkey and quail. The battle against the hogs is an ongoing and aggravating struggle, said Upchurch, an attorney who lives in Birmingham.
“If you don’t eliminate 70 to 80 percent of the population every year, you’re losing ground,” he said. “They are omnivores, they will eat just about anything. And the biggest thing is they destroy the habitat. And I am convinced that habitat is the most important thing for wildlife. Pigs destroy the habitat, they soil, the water and are generally just horrible animals.”
“If you don’t eliminate 70 to 80 percent of the population every year, you’re losing ground.”
SAM UPCHURCH, GREY ROCKS RANCHFor the past two years, the USDA has used helicopters to shoot hogs from the air at Gray Rocks. A gunner uses a semi-automatic 12 ga. shotgun to shoot the hogs. Over a four-day period last year, about 350 hogs we bagged. This year, the effort yielded 74 hogs.
Alabama is a hunting crazy state. Hunting generates an annual economic impact of about $1.8 billion a year in the Heart of Dixie, according to U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife figures. Whitetail deer are ether most popular game animal in the state, according to the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
Hogs are present in all 67 counties in Alabama, according to the game department. A study conducted by Mississippi State University shows pig populations can double each year. Adult wild hogs eat 3 to 5 percent of their body weight daily, so, 100 hogs can eat 600 pounds of food daily or 110 tons each year.
The study shows there is about a 50 percent overlap in diet for hogs and whitetail deer in the fall, meaning hogs and deer compete for the same food sources. Hogs can live up to 10 years in the wild. When it comes to population control, the study shows that a 50 percent depredation of wild hogs is needed to stop population increases and a 70 percent removal of wild hogs yearly is needed if there is a chance to eventually exterminate the population.
Ty Baker, USDA employee, looks on as a USDA helicopter with a gunman flies over the tree-line during a feral swine control program at the Grey Rocks Ranch in western Autauga County. (Photo: Albert Cesare/Advertiser)
But the complicating factor is hogs are a mobile scourge, said Mike Blake, ranch manager at Grey Rocks.
“They will move to where the food is,” he said. “So, if your neighbor has hogs, you’ll have hogs eventually. And if you have hogs, your neighbor will have hogs eventually.
“Somebody that has 20 acres out in the country, they are just as proud of their place as Sam is of this place. And hogs will do the same damage on 20 acres that we have seen here. You can’t stop trying to control them, it’s a year-round effort.”
The MSU study shows that in 2012 in 41 counties in southwest Georgia, wild hog damage totaled $81 million. That breaks down to $57 million in agriculture and $24 million in non-agriculture damage. The damage ranges from row crop destruction to livestock mortality of newborn calves and young sheep and goats. Hogs also cost money in the timber industry, cutting production and impacting reforestation efforts. Then there are water quality issues, where fecal coliform levels increase and water quality decreases. And don’t forget infrastructure damage, the study points out, rooting causes problems in fields, roads and dams and levees.
Agriculture, which includes forestry, is the Number One industry in Alabama, according to the Alabama Farmer’s Federation. The industries drive a $70.4 billion annual economic impact and supply 580,295 jobs, federation figures show.
And don’t forget about the diseases wild hogs can carry. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that feral hogs can carry 45 diseases and parasites that pose a risk to livestock, pets, wildlife — and in some cases — humans. For wildlife and livestock, those diseases include pseudorabies, swine brucellosis, bovine tuberculosis and leptospirosis. Hogs can also carry the foreign animal disease such as African Swine Fever, classical swine fever and foot and mouth disease.
The MSU study shows that diseases wild pigs carry that can be transmitted to people include leptospirosis, swine brucellosis, e. coli, salmonellosis, toxoplasmosis, trichinosis, giardia and cryptosporidioses.
Clayton Glassey, USDA employee, aids Mike Blake, Grey Rocks Ranch manager, in loading a feral hog into his truck at the Grey Rocks Ranch in western Autauga County. (Photo: Albert Cesare/Advertiser)
Everyone generally agrees that the best way to control feral hogs is through trapping. Usually the traps are made of metal fence panels and have some type of door that can be tripped to trap the hogs. The most effective practice is to trap an entire group, or sounder, of hogs.
Alabama law forbids the transport of live feral hogs. Once the hogs are trapped, they have to be killed in the trap.
A point of contention among many landowners is the regulation that hogs can’t be hunted at night or over bait during deer season. Deer season runs from mid-October to Feb. 10 in the state. The game department’s logic is simple, the practice of shooting hogs at night and over bait could lead to more night hunting of deer, which is also illegal.
Everyone also generally agrees that controlling hogs isn’t possible one rifle bullet at a time. But still, every method should be used, Blake said.
“That’s a long time, from October to February,” he said. “We trap, hunt with dogs and shoot hogs. We should be able to hunt hogs year-round with little or no restrictions. If somebody is going to night hunt, they are going to night hunt. If your house is infested with roaches or mice, you get rid of them. And hogs are nothing but vermin.”
The no hunting at night over bait during deer season regulation will stand, said Chuck Sykes, director of the game department’s wildlife and freshwater fisheries division.
“Hunting hogs is a recreational activity, it is not an effective management tool,” he said. “Show me a credible study that says hunting is effective, and I’ll reconsider. But I’ve been doing this a long time, I’ve been there and done that. You can’t blow smoke up my skirt and convince me that hunting hogs is an effective tool.
“I’m protecting a $2 billion a year industry here. I’m not going to do anything that threatens the resource.”
“If your house is infested with roaches or mice, you get rid of them. And hogs are nothing but vermin.”
MIKE BLAKE, GREY ROCKS RANCH MANAGERThat approach is “short-sighted,” said Robert White, a Montgomery hunter. He hunts on family-owned land in Lowndes County. Hogs moved onto the place about three years ago.
“We don’t see the deer and turkey we used to see, after the hogs showed up,” he said. “And what really concerns me is we don’t have the deer and turkey on our game cameras like we used to. I’m no wildlife biologist, but I believe the hogs are the reason. If we don’t get a handle on these hogs, we may not have much of a deer population in a few years. The pigs are that big of a problem.”
Clayton Glassey, left, USDA employee, and Ty Baker, USDA employee, take blood samples and DNA from a hog shot from a helicopter during a USDA feral swine control program at the Grey Rocks Ranch in western Autauga County. (Photo: Albert Cesare / Advertiser)
Barry Estes and his brother, Bart, operate Alabama Hog Control Inc. The company sells and leases hog traps, but also takes paid hunters out for hog hunts at night. The two days after deer season ended this year, Barry Estes and clients hunting in Autauga County bagged 40 hogs while hunting at night.
“Hunting is not the most effective way, but it is a control method when you do it right,” Barry Estes said. “We shoot the big hogs, the sows and boars. That means the little hogs may get dumb and walk into those traps that the older hogs kept them out of. You may see those little hogs in the fields in daylight where you can get a shot at them.
“You need to be able to use every tool in the toolbox.”
Other states in the Hog Belt have different laws in dealing with hunting of feral hogs:
- Florida: On private land with landowner permission hogs can be trapped or hunted year-round. No hunting license is required and there is no bag limit. Both sexes may be harvested. A gun and light at night permit is not required to hunt wild hogs for using a gun and light on private land with the landowner’s permission.
- Mississippi: A hunting license is required for residents and non-residents. Landowners and leaseholders, and their designated agents, can hunt nuisance animals year-round at any time day or night. Bait is legal expect during spring turkey hunting season. Bait must be removed at least 10 days before hunting any game animals.
- Georgia: There is no limit and no closed season for feral hogs. Residents must have a valid hunting license unless they are hunting their own property. Non-resident must have a valid hunting license. Feral hogs may be hunted at night with a light which is carried on the person. Hunting over bait is allowed. There is no hunting from vehicles.
- California: A hunting license and wild pig tag are generally required. The season is open year-round and there is no bag limit.
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A hunting license is required in Alabama for residents to hunt hogs. The exception is if they are hunting on land they own. Non-residents must get a hunting license to hunt hogs. License sales are key to the operation of the department, Sykes said. The wildlife and freshwater fisheries division receive no funding from the state budget. Money to run the division comes from federal taxes levied on the sale of guns and ammunition and hunting and fishing related equipment.
The state receives its portion of the federal money based on the sale of hunting and fishing licenses.
“If we didn’t require licenses to shoot hogs, how many hunting licenses do you think we would sell?” Sykes said. “Deer hunters would just sit on a pile of corn and say they were hog hunting. The only way our guys could build a case is if they saw the hunter dragging a deer out of the woods. And without license sales, we would have to close the doors.”
Back in Lowndes County, White is straight-forward about his hog control methods.
“We’ll trap, but we’ll also shoot every damn hog get a chance to,” he said. “And we’ll pay the fine if it comes to that.”
From left, Clayton Glassey, USDA employee, and Ty Baker, USDA employee, gather blood samples and DNA from a hog shot by the USDA from a helicopter as Mike Blake, Grey Rocks Ranch farm manager, ropes the hog.(Photo: Albert Cesare / Advertiser)