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Feral Hog Problem at Tipping Point

Bounty systems have a bad reputation. Historically, they were associated with misguided predator control programs that overlooked the important ecological roles of foxes, coyotes, hawks and other carnivores. Many such programs were poorly administered and cases of fraudulent bounty collections were common.

Time is running out if we are to have any chance of avoiding long-term damage by feral hogs to our state's forests, wetlands, and crop fields. Wild hogs, many of Eurasian stock, have been escaping from commercial game ranches in Michigan for at least a decade, and have now been confirmed in at least 63 of Michigan's 83 counties.

The wild hogs are mostly in small bands of fewer than 20 animals. They have dispersed many miles from the game ranches and are reproducing. State officials have little information on how many are roaming the landscape, but have already received hog- caused crop and forest damage reports in both the Upper and Lower Peninsulas. Biologists recently noted damage in the Pigeon River Country State Forest and state land in Marquette County.

In May, the Michigan Department of Agriculture (MDA) confirmed pseudorabies virus (PRV) in free-roaming hogs in Saginaw and Gratiot Counties as well as in several commercial ranches (see July-August issue of The Wildlife Volunteer). That disease is a huge threat to Michigan's domestic swine industry, and the MDA, with help from the DNR and the federal government, is hurriedly mobilizing to enforce quarantines, test animals for disease, and eliminate captive infected hogs. Legislation has been drafted to grant authority to stop the keeping of wild hogs behind fences, but it may be a classic case of the "horse already out of the barn."

In 32 other U.S. states, wild hogs cause an estimated $800 million dollars worth of damage annually. Once the wild hogs became established, none of those states were able to eliminate hogs despite massive and expensive efforts. Most state agencies in "hog country" have given up on eradicating the animals, which are notorious for eluding hunters and quickly expanding their numbers and range.

The only hope for wild hog control in Michigan is a multi-front assault that involves citizens. The agencies may slow or even halt additional escapes of hogs from fenced areas, but they will not be effective against hogs already loose on private as well as public lands. It is now legal to shoot wild hogs, if the shooter has a valid hunting license, in more than 50 Michigan counties. However based on experiences in Texas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Hawaii and other states where hogs are heavily hunted but damage is nevertheless extensive, hunting will not eliminate hogs. Most opportunities to kill hogs will be chance encounters when hogs move into crops or on lawns in search of food. If the DNR drops hunting license requirements and allows wild hogs to be killed on sight year-round by anyone, it's possible the hogs could be held in check. It's a long shot, but one we have to try.

We have no chance unless Michigan citizens become well-educated about this new menace. But unfortunately, the whole issue has slipped under the public's radar. Few Michigan citizens have any idea what's going on with wild hogs. Most vaguely recall only “reading something” about it in the newspaper.

That has to change. Lack of public pressure on elected officials, and in turn on agency personnel, has gotten us into this mess. We should have seen it coming when game ranches first began importing the pest. But our attitude has long been that if it's not on a list of illegals, it is okay to bring it in. Australia, which learned the hard way, now has a policy that if a plant or animal is not on an approved list, it can't be imported. There's a huge difference in that approach and the system that brought us Eurasian wild boars.

Officials in other states emphasize that we must act now or our slim chance will be gone. With wild hogs capable of producing multiple litters of 3-12 per year, even a few months of delay is detrimental.

As reported in the June 2008 issue of Michigan Farm News, Sam Hines, of the Michigan Pork Producer's Association noted, "I've been told by a number of people in states where they've been struggling with feral swine for years that if they'd have taken action when they were in the position we are now, they'd be in much better shape today. Their advice is to move with all haste."

But, so far, Michigan has not moved with haste. Even though wild hogs have caused damage in other states for over a century, no one moved to regulate Michigan game ranches that imported them, or Michigan residents that began to raise them. State officials routinely walked past herds of wild boars without stopping when inspecting deer, elk and other regulated species at game ranches and breeding facilities. In 2001 the DNR opposed a bill to allow shooting of wild hogs that was introduced after some Russian wild boars escaped from a game ranch in the Upper Peninsula. Some biologists reportedly opined that Russian wild boars were a Southern U.S. species unlikely to survive Michigan's winters. They apparently overlooked the fact that Russian boars evolved in regions of extreme cold and snow. In 2006, MDA and the DNR issued a joint press release encouraging hunters to shoot feral swine. The two agencies stated the need for legislation and control of wild hogs at game ranches. Yet, two years later no legislation has been passed.

The wild hog problem in Michigan is both a crisis and a test. If we can't move quickly to avoid a problem of this magnitude, it will be apparent that our political and administrative networks are too cumbersome to meet serious environmental challenges.

Dr. Patrick J. Rusz
Director of Wildlife Programs

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