NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Eight years into a U.S. program to control feral pig damage, the invasive animals with big appetites and snouts that uproot anything that smells good are still a multibillion-dollar scourge for farmers, wildlife and the environment.
These prolific feral pigs have been extirpated in 11 of the 41 states where they were reported in 2014 or 2015, with fewer in parts of the other 30.
But despite more than $100 million in federal money, an estimated 6 million to 9 million wild boars still wreak havoc on the landscape across the country. They tear up planted fields and wallow in huge barren depressions. They eat more than deer and turkey – and also eat turkey eggs and even fawns. They carry parasites and diseases and pollute streams and rivers with their excrement.
Total US damage is estimated at a minimum of $2.5 billion per year.
Adam McLendon, whose family grows about 8,000 acres (3,200 hectares) of peanuts, corn and cotton in several counties in southwestern Georgia, estimates that feral pigs have cost them more than $100,000 a year for the past 15 years.
That’s about what one of Mississippi’s two levee boards pays each year to capture and kill wild boars and repair damage from their rooting, Commissioner Hank Burdine estimated. “That’s nominal compared to what we would have if we didn’t take care of it and had a flood,” he added.
Near the Red River in North Texas, pigs are so busy with corn that Layne Chapman and his neighbors aren’t even trying to grow it anymore.
“I can remember the first day someone called me and said, ‘You have a pig in your wheat field,’ and I said, ‘No, we don’t have any pigs.’ That was in 2006,” Chapman said. He stopped planting corn in 2016.
The animals uproot rows of freshly planted peanuts and corn, leaving huge tracks that must be smoothed out before the field can be replanted – weeks after the best planting time. Pigs return to cornfields when the crop matures, trampling stalks, taking bites out of ears and wallowing to cool their sweatless bodies.
The United States Department of Agriculture National Feral Pig Harm Management Program has received $31.5 million since its inception in 2014.
McLendon and Chapman, who still grow cotton and wheat and raise livestock on about 8,000 acres (3,200 hectares) in Vernon, Texas, have both benefited from sub-$75 million pilot eradication projects allocated separately by Congress in the Agriculture Act 2018.
Further research is also being done on ways to poison wild boars without killing other animals, said Michael Marlow, assistant manager of the USDA program. The poison, sodium nitrite, is a preservative in bacon but prevents live pigs’ blood from carrying oxygen.
Trials this coming winter and spring will test whether birds can be kept away from falling bait by using a less crumbly formulation, along with grilles to keep crumbs out of reach and air-powered “scary men” such as sky dancers used for retail advertising, Marlow said. .
But for now, two main methods of control are aerial shots and remote-controlled traps that send cell phone pictures when a pig siren is inside.
Some states have legalized nighttime wild boar hunting. Derek Chisum, who grows peanuts, cotton and wheat in Hydro, Oklahoma, estimates he’s killed 120 to 150 a year since Oklahoma did that three years ago.
As of 2014, Idaho, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Maine, Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota, Washington, Wisconsin, and Vermont have killed their small populations of feral pigs, though the program remains wary in the latter six states. .
The hardest hit states – California, Oklahoma, Texas and Florida, where a runway collision occurred with a few feral pigs a total of one F-16 fighter jet in 1988 – are still at the highest level of the program, with over 750,000 pigs. Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina estimate their populations at 100,000 to 750,000, although Hawaii went down a level.
The total population of Texas has been “fairly stable” since 2011 at about 3 million, said Mike Bodenchuk, state director of USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, or APHIS.
But statewide reduction, let alone eradication, is likely to be a long slog with the available tools and money now available, he said in a telephone interview.
That means killing a lot of boars, although a much-repeated figure — that pigs are so prolific that 70% of pigs in a given area must be killed every year to keep numbers stable — is simply not accurate, said Kim Pepin, a research biologist at the USDA’s National Wildlife Research Center in Fort Collins, Colorado.
To reduce populations, you just have to kill more than are born each year — and growth rates vary in different environments, Pepin said. “If you want to know the growth rates, you have to do monitoring,” she said.
In Texas, the four-county Upper Red River Watershed Project and other intensive Farm Bill efforts have left a significant dent in target areas, Bodenchuk said. But those only cover 16 of the state’s 254 counties.
The bill pays for 34 eradication projects in limited areas of a dozen states.
In Texas, APHIS is targeting areas of worst damage, teaching landowners how to continue work after Farm Bill projects end in 2023, and leaving resources such as loan traps — $7,000 or more each — to help “as we run the program move”. through the landscape,” Bodenchuck said.
“Even if we use this approach, we won’t have the resources to eradicate pigs in Texas in my lifetime,” he wrote in an email.
Researchers are still trying to get good numbers for populations and damage. The current estimate of at least $2.5 billion in annual national damage is $1 billion higher than the 2014 estimate, and pig numbers are now estimated at 6 million to 9 million instead of 5 million.
But those don’t indicate actual increases, said Marlow, the national assistant program manager. “I think we just have it better under control,” he said.
The agency has conducted studies to improve damage estimates, but they are still limited — such as damage to six top crops in 11 states. And the numbers are probably low, not counting costs such as extra time and fuel required to harvest swine-damaged fields, said Sophie McKee, a research economist at the wildlife research center where Pepin works.
When a small group of farmers and ranchers were asked to account for that cost, their damage estimates nearly tripled, McKee said.
Chapman, the Red River farmer, said such costs can be difficult to estimate. For example, he said that if pigs burrow at the low end of an irrigated farm, “it will never drain again.”
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