Aerial hunting offers one of the best options for controlling feral hogs, but the expense and some government restrictions, as well as the limited period when aerial hunting is effective, may restrict how effective the practice will become.
“We got a problem,” said Kevin Grant, state director of Wildlife Services for the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture Food and Safety.
Grant told participants in the Oklahoma Peanut Expo at Lone Wolf that aerial hunting, along with trapping and other control strategies, should be part of an integrated pest management system for feral hogs. “There is no magic bullet,” he said. “Traps will be a good option, but traps will not catch all the hogs in an area. We also need to use dogs and hunting.”
He said traps give hogs an option. “We put out the bait and the hogs can decide if they want to go in the trap or not. With an aerial hunt, they have no choice.”
Hunting from the air, in either a fixed-wing aircraft or from a helicopter, may be expensive, but considering the number of animals that can be controlled is still an economical option, “when we can use it. When trees leaf out, we can’t see to shoot hogs, so we are limited to winter months.”
He said a helicopter may be a more versatile tool than an airplane. “But it’s eight times more expensive. It’s also a risky business flying that low in a helicopter.”
Grant said the Oklahoma Legislature recently passed a law allowing aerial hunts for game management operations. “That’s one step closer to allowing individuals to hire an airplane and shoot hogs on their own."
Currently, the wildlife service conducts the aerial hunts. “We identify areas with heavy populations and then set up traps or organize a hunt,” he said.
Budget issues also dictate how many hunts and other practices the service can use. “Hogs account for one-third of our workload, but only one-tenth of our budget,” Grant said. “We are stretched thin.”
He also recommends trapping. “I’m high on trapping, but we need to sell the message that traps work and then spread traps across the state. With traps it’s not uncommon to catch from 10 to 20 hogs at a time.”
But it’s not easy. “We have the hassle of putting out the traps, baiting them, running them and maintaining them. And if a hog ever gets out of a trap it’s not likely to go in one again.”
He said he’s always looking for better trap designs and is eager to hear from folks who have ideas. “We experiment all the time.”
The best efforts have not been adequate to keep up with an exploding feral hog population and Grant believes “drastic measures” may be needed at some point to control the pests adequately. For the time being, he said, “the hogs are winning.”
He cited several reasons the problem has gotten so severe. “Transport and release of hogs went unrestricted for many years. Now, to control the population we need to kill about 70 percent of the herd for a period of time. They can double their population every nine months if food and habitat are adequate.”
He said a money trail contributes to the problem as well. People buy hogs for hunting, which helps with control. But some also want to maintain the population to perpetuate hunting revenue.
He said control options are labor intensive and access to habitat is often restricted. “We may have access to several areas — but one landowner refuses, leaving a haven for the hogs.”
Most control options, Grant said, do not influence feral hog populations significantly.
“And our involvement is limited because of funding and property access.” He explained that the Wildlife Services is funded by the federal and state governments. “We also have the right to charge cities, companies, counties and individuals."
Grant said a sterile bait option once considered for control has not been approved. “It would take a long time and would require EPA approval.” Poison is outlawed. “In Australia they use rat poison. There is not a chance that will be allowed in the United States. There are things that are toxic to hogs, but we can’t use poison.”
He said Kansas is currently undergoing an eradication effort, using mostly traps and aerial hunting to reduce the population. “But Kansas does not have as many hogs. They are trying to get ahead of the population.”
Grant said the department has tracked feral hog movements since 1993 when they “began to get a few calls. We saw them spread throughout the state and now we have feral hog populations in all 77 counties.”
Control is important. “Feral hogs affect more than just agriculture. They destroy municipal sites and backyards. We also have a question of disease transmission — psuedorabies, which is not transmitted to humans, and swine brucellosis, which can be.”
He said hunters should take precautions when dressing feral hogs. “Wear rubber gloves,” he said. In humans, swine brucellosis is known as undulant fever and can be serious.