Feral hogs are the invasive menace you've never thought about

Feral hogs are the invasive menace you've never thought about
Mar 2023

Think of the worst invasive species you know. Kudzu: smothering trees and houses, growing a foot a day. Burmese pythons: stripping the Everglades of small animals. Asian carp: hoovering streams clean of plankton and swimming toward the Great Lakes.

They all came from somewhere else, arrived with no natural predators, outcompeted local flora and fauna, and took over whole ecosystems. But they all have their limitations: Kudzu dies in a hard freeze, carp can't tolerate salt water, and pythons can't cover long distances very fast. (Thankfully.)

Now imagine a species with all those benefits--foreign origin, no enemies--and no roadblocks to dominance: One that is indifferent to temperature, comfortable in many landscapes, able to run a lot faster than you, and muscular enough to leave a big dent in your car. That describes any of the possibly 6 million feral hogs in the United States, the most intractable invasives that most people have never heard of.

Feral hogs are the invasive menace you've never thought about
"If you wanted to create the perfect invasive species, one that could pretty much live anywhere, could eat anything, had a very high reproductive rate, was extremely destructive, and was also very difficult to control, you would have to look no further than the wild pig," says John "Jack" Mayer, a technical program manager at the federal Savannah River National Laboratory in South Carolina, and a noted authority on feral swine. "They can live just about anywhere, from the frozen Canadian prairie provinces down to the hot, humid deserts of the American Southwest and all parts in between. They are the ultimate survivor."

Feral hogs--or wild pigs, wild boar, feral swine, or razorbacks--aren't new to the US; by some accounts, they arrived in the 1500s, shipped in by Spanish colonizers as a mobile meat source. Over the centuries, they settled in the forests of the Southeastern US, mixing their genes with those of escaped domestic pigs and Eurasian boar imported for hunting. That ad hoc cross-breeding produced a 3-foot-tall, 5-foot-long package of razor tusks and bristles that retains the aggression of its wild ancestors while possessing the big litters and rapid breeding cycles of domestic pigs.

Which might have been fine, if the hogs had stayed in the forests. But in the past few decades, they have been on the move: through suburbs and into cities, at one point reaching 48 states. To a wild hog, modern human landscapes--farm fields, flower gardens, golf courses, landfills--are all-you-can-dig-up buffets. "Anything that has a calorie in it, they'll eat it," says James LaCour, the state wildlife veterinarian in Louisiana's Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. "They're a mammalian cockroach."

The challenge inherent in wild pigs isn't only the damage they do, though that is estimated to total $2.5 billion per year. Nor is it the diseases they may transmit to domesticated pigs or humans, though the dire possibilities keep biologists awake at night. It's that there is no way of controlling them. Fences cannot hold them. Trapping and shooting can keep down their numbers only when populations start out small. And despite abundant research, pharmaceutical controls--either contraceptives or poisons, what biologists call toxicants--are still a few years away.

No one can pinpoint a single moment when wild hog populations started to explode. Will Harris grew up in southwest Georgia, where he is the fourth generation in his family to operate White Oak Pastures, a regenerative livestock farm. "Nobody here ever saw wild hogs when I was a kid," says Harris, who is 68. "Today, it's an incredible problem. Especially for row crop farmers, the losses can be devastating, because they root and root and destroy many acres. My livestock manager and our cowboys are shooting them all the time."

On maps kept by the National Feral Swine Damage Management Program, created by the US Department of Agriculture in 2014, the pigs' expansion from the 1980s looks like a tide flowing inland, from the Atlantic Coast into Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan, and from the Gulf Coast up through Texas and Louisiana into Missouri and Illinois. But unlike some other invasive species whose migrations have been encouraged by changing climate and weather patterns, this movement had--well, call it an anthropogenic cause. "Cable television," says Stephen Ditchkoff, a wildlife biologist and professor in Auburn University's College of Forestry, Wildlife and Environment.

He explains it this way: In the pre-cable years, there was occasionally a hunting show on TV. In the multi-channel era, those morphed into entire hunting channels that needed enough content to fill 24 hours every day. "And they started to show pig hunting," Ditchkoff says. "And people said, 'Boy, I'd like to try that.' And pretty quickly they realized they didn't have to go where the pigs were--they could track them, transport them, and release them close to where they lived. And that's what led to this massive range expansion."