TANEY COUNTY, Mo. — Dawn’s early light belongs to the fog and a whip-poor-will.
A cool beginning to a spring mountain day. Only the bird’s call stirs the wooded quiet.
Then, suddenly, a shrieking, frantic squeal. Hooves pound into the dirt. A wild hog races full speed across the makeshift enclosure and crashes headfirst into a wire panel.
Like a stock car into a wall. Then another one. And one after that. They try to climb atop one another.
Men nearby, their boots firmly planted, raise guns. Just in case the trap’s panels give way. It’s happened, but with bigger hogs. These are smaller, young and, most disappointingly, not nearly as many as the men want to find this recent morning.
“Look here,” says James Dixon, a wildlife damage biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation, which just wrapped up the first year of a five-year plan to eradicate feral hogs from the state.
Dixon kneels in the mud. Signs of rooting and wallowing from the night surround the pen.
“They were all here, but only these young ones went inside,” he says. “The older ones are too smart.”
And big and fast and destructive and mean and ugly. Now factor in prolific and savvy.
Despite years of aggressive kill measures, including aerial shooting, trapping, snares and “shoot on sight” requests to hunters, the U.S. Department of Agriculture refers today to the “expanding” problem of wild swine in America.
An estimated 6 million feral hogs — up from 2 million 20 years ago — some with big heads and sharp tusks linked to Russian boars of generations past, roam the country in collective “sounders” of 15 or so, rooting up land and crops like four-legged diesel equipment.
The hogs used to be mainly a rural Southern problem. But now they’re in 38 states and moving north, even into New England. They’re encroaching on cities and treating parkland, gardens and golf courses like their own pigpens.
In Missouri and other states, conservation workers and farmers are constantly frustrated by people bringing in truckloads of the animals from other states and turning them loose. Kansas jumped on the problem early by banning sport hunting of hogs and is now a model for the rest of the country.
Costs of feral swine annual damage and control efforts, nationally: more than $1 billion, according to the USDA.
Jeremy Thomas is paying some of that. He farms bottom land along Indian Creek in McDonald County in the southwest corner of Missouri. On a recent day, he stood in a field and looked at a slight furrow running the length of a corn row.
Perfectly straight, as if made by machinery. No, hogs.
“Best I can tell, they put their snouts down and go to rooting,” Thomas said. “They get to the end of the row, turn around and come back.”
They’re after the hybrid seed corn he’d just put in the ground. At $250 per bag, he’s reluctant to replant.
“They could be anywhere, just watching,” Thomas said.
Wild hogs are like big rats. Three hundred pounds of nasty with sharp teeth. They kill small livestock and eat ground-nesting birds. They contaminate streams and cause erosion. They carry diseases, such as brucellosis and pseudorabies, both of which can be passed to domestic swine.
They devastate hunting areas because they compete with deer and turkey for food.
“They outsurvive other wildlife,” Dixon said.
The rules on hunting these critters? Virtually none. Shoot on sight (in areas that allow hunting). As many as you want as often as you want. Out hunting and see a hog? Conservation officials say drop him, please. Drop two or three. Leave them for the sun to bake and coyotes to eat. Go on, treat the vultures.
“We’re not out to manage them,” Dixon said. “We want to wipe them out.”
So what is it exactly that makes the feral hog the neo-Nazi of the animal kingdom?
They have no friends. Nobody’s out waving signs to “Save the Feral Hog.” People who love wildlife and nature hate them. People who like them like them for one reason: to shoot them.
Please, can somebody say something good about this animal?
“They’re easier to train than puppies,” said John Mayer, who started studying wild hogs 40 years ago and tried to raise one in his house. “They’re cute when they’re little. Until they start to turn over furniture. And they’re good eating. Except big boars stink when you cook them. I had a guy tell me once he had to bury a skillet in the backyard.”
Really, that’s the good? You have to bury the skillet?
“They are the worst, most invasive animal on the planet,” said Mayer, the manager of the environmental science group at the Savannah River National Laboratory in Aiken, S.C. Mayer also co-authored “Wild Pigs in the United States: Their History, Comparative Morphology, and Current Status.”
Feral swine are not native to the U.S. They can be traced to hogs brought to the country in the 1500s by Spanish explorers and allowed to roam free. According to the USDA, the ranks of those early hogs multiplied over time by domestic hogs turned loose into the wild.
At some point, hunters brought in Russian wild boars, which mixed bloodlines with existing sounders. Now we have gangs of tusked feral hogs that can run 35 mph, jump 3 feet high and, somehow, manage to climb out of a pen with sides 6 feet high. A common saying: “If a fence won’t hold water, it won’t hold wild hogs.”
They are highly intelligent, can live anywhere in any climate, and have sharp teeth and no natural predators.
Now add in two litters a year, six to 10 to a litter, and you get a “national pig explosion” to the point that the USDA has asked for an additional $20 million in 2014 to fight the problem.