Fortunately, the most I have to worry about wildlife is usually limited to deer attempting to cross the road in front of my truck. A few clients who have livestock such as alpacas and sheep that live up on a small mountain ridge in my area sometimes worry about the occasional black bear roaming through their place, trying to steal a meal, but that’s about the extent of the wild animal excitement here in Maryland. Out west, however, there are bigger problems.
Feral hogs are a huge agricultural threat in some states, particularly Texas. A recent count estimates the number at 2.6 million wild hogs in this state, a number which has continued to grow almost exponentially over the past few decades despite allowances for all-year hunting of these animals.
Considered an invasive species, these hogs are incredibly destructive. Able (and willing) to eat almost anything, they destroy acres of crops at a time and have even been known to root up freshly planted seeds. Their rooting behavior also damages the land, so not only farmers but recreational parks are also having problems with these roaming animals. Non-invasive wildlife is also threatened, since hogs have been known to eat eggs out of the nests of local birds, reptiles, and amphibians.
In my eyes, the greatest threat of the feral hog is their capability to easily and uncontrollably spread disease. Not only do these animals have the potential to bring back a resurgence of reportable diseases such as pseudorabies, brucellosis, and influenza, they can also make the containment of an outbreak almost impossible. For example, if foot and mouth disease were to break in Texas, these feral hogs would carry the disease far and wide. And this is a scary thought.
Although there are no restrictions on hunting these animals — and hunters do their share not only to help population control but also because feral hog can be tasty on the table — people cannot beat the sheer fecundity of this species. Female hogs reach sexual maturity at six to eight months of age and can produce three litters of piglets (with sizes ranging from six to twelve piglets) every two years. Add to this the fact that hogs are incredibly smart and can learn to avoid traps and snares, and it’s no wonder these animals are a cause for concern.
What about poison? Currently, federal laws do not permit the use of toxins to control feral hog populations. A toxin’s effect can go way beyond just the targeted victim. For animal control, a toxin can also potentially affect the environment as it sits in baits, potentially polluting run-off, or being picked up by scavenger animals that dine on the carcasses of the victims. And then there’s the question of the fate of unintended species that eat the poisoned bait.
Recently, researchers started looking into the use of sodium nitrite, which is a compound used in Australia — a country with its own feral hog problems. This compound shows some promise, since swine seem to be particularly sensitive to it, but it’s not ready for use yet. Until something comes along, be it an effective and highly specific toxin, a foolproof hog trap, or a Pied Piper comes to Texas with a penchant for wild bacon, agriculture in certain areas of the U.S. is going to continue dealing with a multi-faceted threat.
Dr. Anna O’Brien