Feral hogs destroy wildlife habitat at alarming rates and cause a number of important concerns to hunters, farmers and other landowners in Oklahoma.
Feral hogs can cause extensive damage to farm fields, crops, stored livestock feed, woodlots, suburban landscaping, golf courses and wildlife habitat important to native species such as deer, turkey, squirrels and quail. Hogs’ voracious appetites, destructive habits and prolific breeding patterns wreak havoc on the landscape, often resulting in overwhelming competition to native species. They may also carry diseases that can be transmitted to other species, including humans.
"The bottom line is they don't belong here," said Kevin Grant, Oklahoma state director of Wildlife Services for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which oversees feral swine management issues in Oklahoma as part of a memorandum of understanding with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. The memorandum is rooted in the fact that feral swine are not true wildlife, but rather descendants of domestic stock living at large in a feral state.
Grant said millions of dollars and significant resources have been spent in an effort to make sure domestic swine stock is safe from disease, so the presence of feral populations raises concerns for the safety of domestic swine and the swine industry.
"If they're here, they need to be on the plate or in a pen because they're not native to the Americas, and the way that they're really taking off out there is pretty phenomenal," Grant said.
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Grant's comments were part of a presentation to the Oklahoma Wildlife Conservation Commission on the statewide status of feral swine, or "wild hogs" as they are often called in Oklahoma. According to Grant and officials with the Wildlife Department, feral hogs are a well-established and still growing problem in Oklahoma.
"They are probably the most prolific large mammal around," Grant said, adding that feral swine can reach sexual maturity by 6 months of age, have relatively short gestational periods and can give birth to large litters multiple times a year.
In the 1990s, the Agriculture Department worked with the Wildlife Department and the Noble Foundation to study the spread of feral hog populations in Oklahoma. Feral hogs seemed to originate in southeastern Oklahoma, and they since have spread to all 77 counties.
Grant said a common question is what can be done about growing and problematic feral hog populations.
"There is no one thing," Grant said. "It's our nature—we want to believe that there's a magic bullet we can employ that will solve this."
But Grant said solutions are not simple.
"It's going to take a combination of a lot of things to get any kind of control on feral swine," he said. Grant said to truly have an effect, an estimated 70 percent of the feral hog population would need to be harvested annually for several years, an unlikely probability due to lack of access to populations. Additionally, in a given area, some landowners may wish to eradicate populations, whereas others may not wish to do so on their property.
Three possible approaches to feral hog population control include trapping, aerial hunting and the use of toxicants, Grant said, though each has significant limitations.
For example, hogs can learn to avoid or even escape traps, a common method used across Oklahoma.
"It's a good method; it's not the end-all," Grant said, adding that trapping may at least help keep up with feral hog reproduction in a local population.
"Aerial hunting is a really good way to get them," he said "But it has its downside, too. One is that you have to be able to see them."
Visibility restricts aerial hunting to those times of the year when there are no leaves on trees and brush. Additionally, hogs can learn to avoid aerial activity and adapt simply by moving onto properties not frequented by low-flying airplanes and helicopters.
Aerial hunting also can be risky and hazardous. The Oklahoma State Legislature has passed two bills that allow aerial hunting from helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft outside the Oct. 1-Jan. 15 period. The governor has signed one bill, and another is awaiting signature.
The Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services also is studying the use of toxicants as a method for control, though it has not been implemented in the United States. In Australia, hog populations are being successfully controlled with the use of sodium nitrite. However, any toxicant used in the United States for wildlife population control must be registered with the EPA after a tremendous amount of testing and evaluations. Effective solutions for avoiding non-target species also must be developed.
"This is going to be some years down the road," Grant said.