Wild pigs, frequently referred to as feral swine or feral hogs, have been in North American for a long time—since the late 1500s, in fact, when the first wild pigs were introduced by Europeans. Since that time, small isolated populations have persisted throughout the Southeast, whether from accidental escapes from swine production operations or remnants from the bygone days of free-ranging domestic swine. In the last 20 or so years, these wild pigs have steadily increased their range and numbers in Alabama and throughout the United States, where they are now found in 47 states.
The live trapping, transporting, and then releasing of wild pigs to new areas for hunting purposes, an activity that is now illegal in all but a couple of states, has been the primary cause for this recent, dramatic spread. Once these pigs find a new home, their high rate of reproduction, combined with their adaptability, allows them to gain a foothold in their new environment. Unfortunately, the damage wild pigs cause far outweighs their value as a recreational hunting species, something those unscrupulous people responsible for spreading wild pigs fail to understand. This is of grave concern to wildlife biologists and should also be of great concern to landowners, agricultural producers, forest owners, hunters, and livestock growers.
What’s the Big Deal?
When it comes to wild pigs, Alabama landowners can be divided into two groups—those who have pigs and those who are about to have them. This is a problem because wild pigs are one of the most destructive animals in Alabama, causing significant damage to the state’s agricultural economy, wreaking havoc on corn, cotton, peanut, and soybean fields.
By the most conservative estimates, wild pigs cause more than $1.5 billion annually in crop damage throughout the United States and more than $55 million a year in land and crop damage in Alabama. Wild pigs also compete with native wildlife, such as deer and turkeys, for limited food sources. They also prey on bird nests, reptiles and amphibians, and other important plants and animals.
But that’s not all. Wild pigs are capable of carrying numerous diseases and parasites that may affect livestock and humans and may also serve as agents for bioterrorism. Swine brucellosis, pseudo-rabies, trichinosis, tuberculosis, vesicular stomatis, and classical swine fever are of significant concern.
In fact, a simulation modeling of an outbreak of foot and mouth disease, an animal disease that is not present in the United States, would cause an estimated U.S. farm loss ranging between $13.6 billion and $20.8 billion, mainly because of the loss of exports and a consumer shift to poultry products. Aside from livestock industry losses, an outbreak would likely have devastating effects on recreationally important species such as white-tailed deer. And once introduced to wildlife, foot and mouth disease would be nearly impossible to reign back in.
Auburn’s Eye on the Ball
In the middle of all the national concern over wild pigs, Auburn University has been the leader in providing the science behind much of today’s— and tomorrow’s— management of wild pigs. It’s critical that landowners and natural resource professionals receive sound, science-based information and technical guidance on wild pig ecology, management, and control methods.
Working with other faculty and staff in the Auburn University School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences and personnel from agencies such as the USDA Wildlife Services and Alabama’s Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, we have been spearheading efforts to provide Alabamians, and the nation, with the science-based information and skills they need to deal with this threat.
Our research team has studied several aspects of wild pigs, from basic ecology and biology all the way to best management practices for use in the field to control damage, and our team of Extension experts takes that science to the people in formats such a technical publications, “how to” videos, and seminars throughout the state. Our efforts have gained national and international attention. For example, we just completed a research project with the government of Morocco on the best techniques and strategies for controlling wild boar in arid environments.
The School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences has partnered with the College of Veterinary Medicine to develop oral contraceptives specific to wild pigs using phage display technology patented by the Vet School. Preliminary research and development look very promising, suggesting that this new technology will be a crucial tool for managing wild pig populations in the future.
We stand at a crossroads. On one side are the rights of landowners to maintain or hunt wild pigs on their land. And there are a multitude of sports enthusiasts who enjoy hunting wild pigs. On the other side is the economic and environmental havoc that this invasive species wreaks. Unfortunately, the incredible economic and environmental damages caused by wild pigs outweigh the benefits they bring through outdoor recreation. Auburn University stands as a leader in this field and will continue to strive toward solutions to this problem.
This editorial is a preview of the authors’ article that will appear in the upcoming 2014 Auburn Speaks book, which will be released during Auburn University’s Research Week April 14-17. More information about Research Week is available at www.auburn.edu/researchweek.
Mark D. Smith and Stephen S. Ditchkoff are professors in Auburn University’s School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences. Smith, also an Alabama Cooperative Extension System specialist, is a co-author of the book, A Landowner’s Guide to Wild Pig Management. Ditchkoff, the William R. and Fay Ireland Distinguished Professor, conducts research on the wildlife ecology and management of wild pigs and deer.