Managing Hogs Or Managing the Damage?
Article by Katy Baldock
Photos by Russell Graves and Larry Ditto
The growing feral hog problem in Texas has proven to be very tough to manage. However, there are some new possibilities on the horizon that could lessen the impact of this invasive species. Dr. John Tomeček, Assistant Professor and Extension Wildlife Specialist at Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, gave me a rundown of feral hogs’ history in Texas, the impacts they have on Texans, various methods used to manage populations, and how landowners can contribute to the effort to reduce the damage done by feral hogs.
How did we get here?
Pigs are a non-native species that were first introduced to North America in the 1500s. They were brought over by Spanish conquistadors who planned to herd them, but they ended up getting loose and multiplying in the wild.
While a small population formed from this introduction, the primary population increase came in the 1800s during early American settlement, such as Austin’s Colony. During this era, most pigs were raised as free range. When winter came, they were gathered into pens, killed and used for cured meat. Free-ranging pork production declined in the 19th century when refrigeration came into the picture, and many pigs were released.
The modern pig problem, however, came in the late 20th century with the rise of the hunting industry. In addition to the existing released domestic pigs, wild boars were imported from Europe and Asia for hunting.
“The birth of the pig hunting industry came somewhere in the 1980s, and folks started putting these pigs on trailers, moving them around, and encouraging their growth for things to hunt year-round,” Tomeček said. “Nobody moving pigs expected them to become the problem they are—like most exotic invasive imports, plant or animal.”
While there have been domestic pigs and releases of small groups in Texas for centuries, the growth of the hunting industry and transportation of the pigs to new territories ultimately contributed to their major population increase.
“Natural expansion of the pig population over the land would take quite an amount of time,” Tomeček said. “But when we have people essentially carrying seeds out to new places, letting pigs out, as those populations grow, at some point they end up touching one another and then the numbers ramp up.”
This series of events has resulted in the major feral hog problem that we see today. Many Texans have faced significant financial loss, land destruction and crop damage from this invasive species.
How bad is it really?
According to Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, feral hogs cause approximately $52 million annually in damages to Texas agricultural producers—and that’s not including damage done to habitat used by native wildlife or suburban areas. Hogs have a larger variety of negative impacts than many may think, causing damage to fields and crops, spreading disease to livestock, destroying habitat and killing native wildlife, tearing up yards in urban areas, and contaminating watersheds.
“On the ag side of things, it’s pretty bad,” Tomeček said. “Hay production has actually gone away in some places because pigs root up the ground so much, hay farmers aren’t willing to farm it anymore.”
Enos Austin, a hay farmer in Nacogdoches, has faced significant damage from feral hogs to his hay meadows for the past 20 years. Austin has a 15-acre meadow that has been repeatedly rooted up to the point where it was rendered useless for hay production. In addition, he’s had farm equipment totaled as a result of running over damaged fields.
“When they root, they root big holes,” Austin said. “And you’ve got to fill all that in in order to produce hay. And in one night—one night—they tore it up so bad I couldn’t do anything with it.”
At about three rolls of hay per acre, Austin loses a lot of money, labor and time when his property is hit.
“It gets worse and worse every year,” Austin said. “You can’t trap enough of them to even make a dent…There’s just too many of them out there now.”
Aside from the significant impacts feral hogs have on agriculture, they also affect other wildlife species that are native to Texas, destroying habitat and killing some animals such as ground nesting birds and fawns.
“They’re opportunistic omnivores, so if they can get a hold of it, they’ll consume it,” Tomeček said. “There’s some speculation that there are some species that are perhaps threatened or endangered, or at least of concern—that there’s some amount of pigs being out there that’s causing things to be worse. We don’t have any data to cleanly say that, but there’s no reason it wouldn’t be true if you have something taking animals on the landscape that shouldn’t be there.”
To add to the list of negative impacts feral hogs have in Texas, they also contaminate our water sources.
“We have real issues with pigs damaging and destroying watersheds, causing bodies of water to be impaired at a federal level or just causing pathogens in them to be so high that you can’t use the water,” Tomeček said. “This is a real issue for us in Texas. Water is like gold here.”
With the impacts feral hogs have on Texas only getting worse, researchers and biologists are doing their best to come up with new ways to prevent further population growth. In addition to traditional trapping and hunting, technology has opened new doors for more advanced trapping methods, and the possibility of using toxicants and contraceptives are on the horizon.
What’s being done to combat the overpopulation?
Many methods have been used over the decades to control hog populations, and some have greatly evolved with the advance of technology. With the options of new and old methods, we currently have a lot to choose from—hunting, trapping, snaring, running dogs and aerial gunning, simply put. Tomeček explained that there are pros and cons to most methods, and the largest impacts are usually made when multiple methods are used in conjunction with one another.
“Pigs are wickedly intelligent—they’re one of the smartest animals we encounter,” Tomeček said. “If I have a group of pigs and I shoot one, then I’ve educated the rest of them. And it may be a while before they come back to that area. On the surface, that might be a good thing … It’s low harvest, but it’s high pressure.”
While methods like hunting and running dogs work well for scaring feral hogs away from an area for a while, they aren’t very effective in controlling populations as a whole. One highly effective method, depending on the area and the ability to implement it, is aerial gunning.
“We recommend aerial gunning when it’s a possibility—big, open country is great,” Tomeček said. “The problem is, in forested places, wooded areas like East Texas, it can be tough. Or even in parts of the Hill Country where it’s really densely wooded, it can be tough to stay with the pigs.”
Tomeček noted that setting snares in conjunction with aerial hunting can be effective, as the pigs are not paying attention to where they are running. However, trapping other wildlife in snares is a possibility.
Trapping methods for feral hogs have come a long way in recent years, and modern technology has allowed for more efficient ways of implementing traps. With electronic triggered doors and traps that can be monitored on a cell phone, it is now much easier to catch large groups of hogs and ensure that other wildlife species aren’t being trapped by mistake.
“We typically recommend for most landowners, pursue some kind of corral trapping,” Tomeček said. “The idea behind the big corral style trap—no matter what your design is—is, I can catch the whole group at one time. So, there are no witnesses, there’s no pigs to know what this thing is.”
While high tech traps can be very costly and may not be an option for many landowners, there are cheaper options and ways to create makeshift traps. Regardless of how it’s set up, the important thing is to make an effort to trap.
There’s another category of population control methods that is not yet available to the public, but could be a possibility in the future—chemical control. Chemical control methods are fairly controversial but could be highly effective in reducing feral hog damage.
“There are options on the chemical side coming up—toxicants, contraceptives,” Tomeček said. “We don’t have anything available to the public yet. The idea is, when we do, those will be really effective in getting in areas where no other method is possible.”
While toxicants can often be the subject of heated debates when discussing feral hog control, many people are okay with the idea of using contraceptives on hogs.
“Most of the public is not land owning, they’re not agricultural producers, they’re not hunters. They are folks that live in urban areas and may not have much experience with these things,” Tomeček said. “So, when you talk about toxicants that doesn’t always sit well with people, but contraceptives, that doesn't bother folks as much."
The primary issue with contraceptives is administering them—getting the pigs to ingest the chemical and ensuring other wildlife species don’t. However, there is the possibility of creating a contraceptive that only affects pigs. This could be used to treat feed that is left out on land, and regardless of what type of animal eats it, it would only work as a contraceptive
Even with these new chemical possibilities, though, other management methods will still need to be used.
“We have some new methods coming up over the horizon,” Tomeček said. “The reality is that when we get them, it’s not going to be a silver bullet solution. We’re going to need to keep doing everything else we’re doing in conjunction with it, but it’ll hopefully allow us to cut down on numbers in areas where we haven’t been able to in the past.”
A true change will only occur if landowners are willing to put in the work to help.
What can landowners do?
According to Tomeček, it’s important to be proactive about managing feral hog populations. In Texas, a common mistake that landowners make is not worrying about hogs on their property until the numbers have already gotten out of control.
In many places like East Texas, it’s become a cycle of managing the damage rather than preventing population growth and dispersals. In places like West Texas where it hasn’t gotten bad yet, landowners should take measures to get control of the situation before it’s too late.
Educating others is another important way to contribute to the cause. While landowners who have dealt with feral hogs know how much of a nuisance they are, the common Texas resident is not aware of the issue.
“Landowners affected by it know how bad it is, but most people don’t,” Tomeček said. “I encourage folks to talk about it all the time to anybody that will listen. Tell them how bad it is. It’s an exotic invasive species. It has no place in our ecosystem.”
The two primary things Tomeček normally advises, though—use every method early and often, and work together with your neighbors in an effort to minimize the issue. Landowners normally see the most results when multiple methods are combined to capture hogs.
Implementing these methods before the problem gets out of control—when possible—is far more effective than just managing the damage. Many of these efforts can backfire, however, if landowners are not willing to work with their neighbors to eradicate feral hogs in the entire area.
“Pigs don’t respect fence lines or property boundaries. They don’t care,” Tomeček said. “We should work on all of our neighbors. That’s the way to control pigs.”
The largest impact will be made when private landowners make an effort to implement proper management practices on their own land, as well as encourage others in the area to do
“We’re a private land state. Without private landowners doing the work, nobody can make it happen,” Tomeček said. “The government can help you, expertise from guys who do nothing but trap all day long, that can help. But at the end of the day, if I don’t have landowners wanting to change something, it won’t get done here.”