Oklahoma works to cut feral hog populations

This little piggy went to market, this little piggy stayed home, this little piggy went wee-wee-wee and rooted up all the crops. Mother Goose’s nursery rhyme may refer to innocent piglets with no ill will toward agriculture, but in the real world feral hogs are anything but G-rated characters in a children’s book.

Feral hogs are a common nuisance in states like Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, Kansas and Missouri. The United States Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service estimates the nationwide population of feral hogs to be more than 5 million animals causing $1.5 billion in damage annually. Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry Wildlife Services Director Scott Alls says wild hog eradication is a key focus of his department. Alls says feral hogs are spread naturally and by humans.

“Historically we start seeing feral swine coming from the South, presumably from Texas and moving north. People, primarily hunters, want the opportunity to hunt and actually transport live pigs and put them in places to establish populations.”

Hunters trapping and transporting hogs to new locations has made such a tremendous impact on feral hog populations that it is a felony to ship a live feral hog without a permit.

“Over the last 40 years the hogs have gone from primarily on the Red River and southeast Oklahoma to virtually statewide,” Alls said. “We estimate the population to be anywhere from a million to 1.6 million hogs although it’s a very hard species to get a population count on pigs because unlike deer, pigs are hard to survey.”

Feral hogs can have a devastating effect on agriculture and pose a threat to both crops and livestock.

“This time of year, especially in the southwest when producers start planting corn, the pigs move in and root up all the seeds they plant,” Alls said. “We’ve had producers have to replant four times to get a stand. Once corn matures, the hogs may get in the fields and actually eat the corn. And the system in which we grow corn, with irrigated center pivots, provides a good habitat for the hogs because for a good part of the year they’ve got a shady, moist, damp environment with a food source.”

Alls says wild hogs cause damage to pastures and hay fields because of their rooting activities and they graze winter wheat and compete with cattle.

“They’ll even take advantage of creep feeders and eat the majority of the feed at night without the producer even realizing it,” he said.

Feral hogs are also known for their disease spreading capability. They can spread diseases to livestock including cattle and domestic pigs. Brucellosis and pseudorabies are the most commonly spread diseases and brucellosis can even be transmitted to humans while in the field dressing process. Alls says leptospirosis, classic swine fever, African swine fever and foot and mouth disease are also common concerns when dealing with feral swine.

Naturally, Oklahoma and surrounding infested states have been trying to eradicate large numbers of hogs for years. Hunters, farmers and government wildlife services have all been working to trap and kill hogs to keep the population from increasing. Alls says the ODAFF’s amped-up efforts to thwart the multiplying of wild hog numbers is paying off.

“Here in Oklahoma, wildlife services is a joint state and federal program with about 50 employees who, the majority of, are doing feral swine projects. In 2011, I think we took 1,500 pigs out of the state and last year we were at about 16,000. We primarily use trapping as a tool. Trapping accounts for about 60 percent and aerial operations with a helicopter accounts for 35 to 40 percent of our take.”

The aerial hunting from a helicopter allows for more hogs to be removed in a shorter amount of time. Alls says his team is working to increase their aerial assets. At present they have one helicopter and one airplane but this coming year they will be adding two more helicopters to allow them to cut into the wild hog numbers even more.

Additionally, Alls says this year feral swine have been mentioned in the farm bill. The farm bill allocated $75 million in funding over a 5-year period that will help with trapping and resources to control feral hogs and compensate farmers and ranchers for loss from pigs. Alls says Oklahoma is going to be a part of the pilot program funded by the farm bill and he expects the project to be underway by fall or winter.

Lacey Newlin can be reached at [email protected].