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July-August 2008 Issue

Worst Fears About Wild Boars Become Reality 

In May, the Michigan Department of Agriculture (MDA) confirmed pseudorabies virus (PRV) infection in wild boars on four privately-owned game ranches in Saginaw, Gladwin (2 ranches), and Cheboygan Counties.  Pseudorabies is a highly contagious disease of swine that kills piglets.  The disease can, but rarely, cause sudden death in cats and dogs, and may affect cattle, sheep, and deer.  The virus does not cause illness in humans and is not related to rabies.

“We must protect Michigan’s $230 million swine industry,” said Don Koivisto, MDA Director.  “Michigan achieved PRV-free status in 2000 and the ability of this disease to be spread by feral hogs to other animals could be a risk to the swine industry.”

Over the past 10 years, dozens (maybe hundreds) of wild boars, mostly of Eurasian stock, have escaped from hunting preserves.  The hogs lift up or go through typical deer-proof fencing.  At least 60 Michigan counties likely have wild boars running around loose.

The MDA plans to destroy all wild boars at the infected facilities, and feral swine (that previously escaped) in the vicinity of the game ranches will be trapped where possible and euthanized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Wildlife Services.  The MDA has notified other states of the disease and is braced for out-of-state markets to impose restrictions on live swine from Michigan.

As part of its response, MDA also banned the importation of swine intended for sport, hunting, or shooting.  Any farms that sold to, or received live swine from the infected facilities were to be quarantined and tested.  Violations of the quarantine and ban are punishable by fines of up to $50,000 and/or up to five years imprisonment.  Additionally, all farms and ranches with commercial or sport swine were quarantined until the swine are tested for PRV.

PRV is transmitted through nasal and oral secretions, food, water, and the environment, and can be carried on car tires, boots, and clothing.  Swine may harbor the virus without showing clear signs.  More information on the disease can be found on the MDA website at www.michigan.gov/mda or the USDA website at www.usda.gov.

The discovery of pseudorabies in the wild boars is the inevitable result of a booming, and essentially unregulated, business in Michigan.  The demand for wild boars at commercial hunting preserves has increased greatly in recent years because they are relatively cheap.  Preserve clients typically pay about $400 to shoot a boar—much less than the cost for a big white-tailed buck.  Wild boar raisers sell them to the preserves for around $1.25 per pound, several times the going rate for domestic hogs raised for meat.  A few years ago many of the wild boars used at the Michigan hunting preserves were imported from Canada.  Now more Michigan residents are raising them and they have been coming in from southern states.  While the state regulates both native and exotic deer, there have been fewer rules governing wild boars.  Those who buy and sell them don’t even have to keep any records. 

This problem didn’t sneak up on us.  There has been ample evidence for several years that action must be taken to stop the release of wild boars.  In November of 2006, the MDA and the DNR issued a joint press release encouraging hunters with a valid hunting license to shoot any kind of feral swine in 23 Michigan counties.  This was a departure from the DNR’s more ambivalent stance on the issue in previous years.  In 2001, state representative Rich Brown of Baraga County sponsored a bill to allow shooting of wild hogs after some Russian wild boars escaped from an enclosure of the Huron Bay Lodge in the rugged Abbaye Peninsula.  Despite the area’s deep snows, the escaped hogs seemed to handle life in the wild quite well and were soon raising havoc in gardens and natural vegetation.  One wild boar reportedly even menaced a local resident, forcing him to hide in a shed.  Brown’s bill was opposed by the DNR and was never passed.  Local residents apparently took the law into their own hands and solved their hog problem.

By the end of December 2006, another seven counties had been opened to hog hunting, but there was still not much effort being made by state officials to curb the wild hog problem.  It is now legal to shoot feral swine (with a valid hunting license) in more than 50 listed counties only because potential owners of the hogs have been contacted and no one claims ownership.  But outside those 50 or so counties, it is unclear whether feral swine can legally be shot.

Wild hogs, regardless of their origin, can produce more than one litter of three to 12 piglets per year.  So, it doesn’t take long for a population to explode.  Many areas of the American South have large feral hog populations that destroy crops, uproot desirable plants (including rare species) in forests, and can potentially spread diseases to domestic pigs.  By the 1980s, wild boars, which were introduced to Tennessee in 1912 through a private hunting preserve, had reduced herbaceous (non-woody) ground cover by 98 percent in some areas of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  Nationally, feral swine damage has been conservatively estimated at $800 million annually.

Several government officials and a citizen from Michigan recently attended a Feral Swine Conference in St. Louis, Missouri, where the feral swine’s destructive potential and tendency to harbor diseases was emphasized.  One of the presenters at the Conference was Dr. John Mayer, of the Washington Savannah River Company, a South Carolina environmental support firm for the U.S. Department of Energy.  The nation’s foremost expert on wild hogs, Mayer believes it will likely take a huge catastrophe such as disease outbreak in a state’s livestock before effective action against wild hogs will be taken.  “State agency personnel often don’t realize how fast wild hogs can reproduce and how damaging they can be,” said Mayer.  “They can’t see the threat until the bomb explodes.  And most people don’t appreciate the seriousness of the problem until they’ve had their yard rototilled by wild boars.”

Mayer has studied wild hogs in the U.S. for more than 30 years and noted that for quite a while the number of states with free-roaming wild boars held at 19.  But since 1990 the number of states with a wild boar problem has jumped to 32.

The Michigan Wildlife Conservancy is bringing Dr. Mayer into Michigan for two free educational events this coming September aimed at increasing awareness about our state’s growing problem with wild hogs. 

Dr. Mayer will speak at the Chippewa Nature Center in Midland on Saturday, September 13 at 3:30 p.m. and at the Conservancy’s Bengel Wildlife Center in Bath northeast of Lansing on Sunday, September 14 at 3:00 p.m.

“The Michigan Wildlife Conservancy thinks it is very important that citizens learn about this serious issue,” said the organization’s President, David Haywood of Lansing.  “It will be impossible to control wild hogs without the help of the Michigan public.”

It is hoped Dr. Mayer’s visit and recent MDA testimony before the state legislature will help spur new laws to make killing of feral swine legal throughout Michigan, and eliminate wild boars anywhere in the state.

For more information about the September events or Michigan’s wild hog problem, contact the Conservancy at 517-641-7677 or email wildlife@miwildlife.org.

Dr. Patrick Rusz
Director of Wildlife Programs 

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