Georgia's Growing Feral Swine Population Calls for an Evolution in Management
A highly prolific, invasive species, feral swine are living life high on the hog – pun intended – wreaking havoc on land in Georgia and throughout most of the country.
Wildlife and agricultural professionals agree that population control methods for feral swine must change.
Nationally, at last count in 2007, there were an estimated 5 million feral swine creating at least $1.5 billion in damage and control costs each year, according to a report by Cornell University’s David Pimentel, “Environmental and Economic Costs of Vertebrate Species Invasions into the United States,” for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Wildlife Research Center Symposia.
Across Georgia, feral swine damage is estimated at more than $150 million for 2014 – nearly $99 million in crop damage and more than $51 million in noncrop damage, according to a 2015 survey by Michael Mengak, University of Georgia Cooperative Extension wildlife specialist.
Of the more than 1,100 farmers and landowners who responded to Mengak’s survey, which was funded by UGA Extension and the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, 29 percent said that they had feral swine on their land and, of those, 63 percent reported damage to their land caused by feral swine, including damage to crops, fences, roads, irrigation equipment, tree and row crop plantings and more.
Feral swine destroy corn, hay, soybeans and wheat in hunting crops or bugs, grubs, worms, acorns and peanuts as a food source. They’ll also root up turfgrass in backyards and golf courses – anywhere there’s healthy grass being watered – because that’s a good habitat for the bugs, grubs and worms that feral swine eat.
“Shortly after planting, when you’ve got pigs in a field, it looks like a plow went straight down a row,” said Jay Porter, UGA Extension agent in Dooly County.
Some farmers worry about damage to crops favored by feral swine to the point that they will plant a crop of lesser value. This may cause a farmer to make up to $14,450 less a year, according to the 2015 survey.
“It shows that pigs are forcing farmers to do other things,” Mengak said. “They (farmers) may be getting a cotton crop, but might’ve gotten more money with a peanut crop.”
Feral swine compete with native wildlife for food, consume the eggs of ground-nesting birds and turtles, contaminate water and can carry 30 diseases and 45 parasites, some of which can affect humans, companion animals and livestock. While classical swine fever has been eradicated from the U.S., brucellosis and pseudorabies are still endemic to the Southeast, said Matt Ondovchik, wildlife biologist and feral swine coordinator for the Wildlife Services division of the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).
Georgia’s feral swine population has been growing in the past three to five years, according to those surveyed, and more than half of those surveyed believe that’s due to a lack of hunting pressure and natural causes. They have no natural predators and one of the highest reproduction rates of all mammals: They can have a litter of up to six piglets twice a year.
Traditionally, hunting was thought to be enough to keep the feral swine population in check. However, as hunting the animals became popular, feral swine were illegally transported across state lines. In the early 1980s, feral swine were concentrated in the South, with populations in California and Nevada, according to APHIS. As of 2010, they exist throughout 35-plus states.
“We have found that all types of hunting are ineffective,” Porter said about the use of hunting as population control for the past 10 to 15 years. “The amount of animals present in the ecosystems, along with the fact that these animals are prolific breeders, [means] you cannot get in the field and shoot enough pigs to make a major impact on populations.”
In the past, small box traps – in which the pig trips the wire and the gate drops – have also been used to catch individual pigs. But feral swine travel in family groups, and they’re smart; seeing another member of the group get trapped often makes the rest of the group “trap shy.”
“With the small cage traps, you’d catch one to two juvenile, naïve pigs, but the rest of the family would get the education of a lifetime,” Ondovchik said.
Currently, UGA Extension, APHIS Wildlife Services and other agencies recommend large-scale, corral-style traps, which can capture a family of pigs at once. These traps are installed after a feeder or bait site is set up and the travel patterns of a family group of feral swine are established. Once the traps are set up, the gate can be triggered to close via app or remote control.
Through $20 million in federal funding, the APHIS National Feral Swine Damage Management Program was established in 2014, enabling Wildlife Services to work with state and local agencies, like UGA Extension, on a local level to curb the feral swine population. Part of this program allows Wildlife Services to work directly with landowners to set up these large-scale, corral-style traps; the APHIS program funds the travel, equipment and bait expenses associated with trapping efforts, and the landowner pays for Wildlife Services personnel’s time on site. In some Georgia counties, UGA Extension is partnering with Wildlife Services in offering this service.
By and large, those surveyed agreed that feral swine are a nuisance that damage the environment and should be eliminated.
“I always like to compare feral pigs to pigweed,” Porter said. “We had tremendous issues with pigweed. In 1996, we sprayed them with Roundup and went about our business. They became [Roundup] resistant and now we use deep tillage, cover crops, hand weeding and multiple herbicides (to control pigweed). With wild pigs, we have hunted them and hunted them and hunted them; it’s the only method we’ve consistently used for 20 or 25 years. We need to take that pigweed approach and use every tool in our toolbox to reduce the feral pig population.”