Feral hogs rank right up there on the lists of invasive species considered “bad actors” — bad for wildlife, bad for ecological systems, bad for the economy.
Like other nuisance species, feral hogs (also called feral swine) take advantage of opportunities. For Virginia’s small — but likely growing — populations of feral hogs, those opportunities derive from legal loopholes, misinformation and a nationwide enthusiasm for hog hunting that may be taking root in Virginia.
The Virginia Feral Hog Task Force, consisting of a range of stakeholders — from wildlife managers to the pork industry — was formed to combat the spread of feral hogs. Its call to action is “Feral Swine: Not Here, Not Virginia,” and its tools include education, regulations and eradication.
Managers estimate the number of feral hogs in Virginia at between 3,000 and 5,000, located in small concentrations and isolated “sightings” across the state. Compared with some Southern states, these numbers are low. Texas and South Carolina have populations estimated at more than 100,000.
But hogs are prolific reproducers and wily evaders of trappers and hunters, which means that control of this species needs to happen now — and quickly — to keep up with the threat.
Feral hogs are members of the domestic swine family (Sus scrofa) that is native to Europe and Asia. Many descend from hogs brought from Europe during American colonial days. Hogs provided a ready source of protein, required little care, and were often left to range freely in fields and forests.
The wild hogs found today in 45 states are either domesticated hogs that have become “wild” after having escaped or been released from domestic rearing — or are directly descended from Eurasian wild boars imported for hunting.
“It only takes a few generations for a domestic pig, once released into the wild, to take on the characteristics necessary for survival in the wild,” said Aaron Proctor, regional wildlife biologist for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, one of the agencies on the task force.
They have few natural predators and no seasonal limits to reproduction. Female hogs can have their first litter as young as five months — and can have up to three litters of eight to 10 piglets each year. Wildlife experts estimate that 70 percent of the population must be eradicated every year just to keep their numbers even.
“They are omnivores, and will eat anything,” said Wilmer Stoneman, associate director of governmental relations of the Virginia Farm Bureau, which supported Virginia’s recent decision to characterize feral hogs as a nuisance species.
“I’ve heard stories from farmers where their pastures look like someone’s just plowed them up,” Stoneman said.
Carl Stafford, extension agent for Culpeper County, one of the epicenters of feral swine in Virginia, said, “they go right down the row and eat every seed.” Several farmers have reported losses of more than $10,000 in a growing season.
True to common lore, hogs will eat anything: corn, peanuts, wheat, orchard fruits, soybeans. Small animals. Forage vegetation. Acorns.
And they harbor 45 different diseases and parasites, including brucellosis and pseudorabies, that threaten wildlife, pets and domestic livestock.
This worries Virginia Del. Barry Knight, who raises pigs commercially in Chesapeake, adjacent to feral hog populations at the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge and False Cape State Park. Any transmission of disease, he said, “could be devastating to the pork industry.”
And, just like barnyard pigs, wild pigs root and wallow. “They are terrible on the environment,” Knight said, “tearing up coastal dunes, causing stream bank erosion, muddying pastures and destroying habitat of sensitive and endangered species.”
“They’re like a great big rototiller,” said Carol Croy, wildlife biologist for Jefferson and George Washington National Forests, where feral hogs have been sighted — not often, but frequently enough to have the Forest Service on high alert for incursions of swine along the hundreds of miles of public-private boundaries between national forest tracts and private land holdings.
At Back Bay NWR, feral hogs feed on the shallow water vegetation that is grown to support migrating waterfowl. “They root around the dikes, causing erosion and cave-ins,” said refuge wildlife biologist John Gallegos. “And wherever they disturb the soil, that’s where the invasive phragmites comes in.” Likewise, in upland habitats, forage feeding opens the way for invasive plants, and hog wallowing in and near streams destroys streams banks and wetlands.
The Virginia task force has been taking censuses and mapping sightings to strategize management efforts. But finding the hogs can be tricky.
Although wildlife officials don’t publicize locations of sightings, many landowners worry that reporting feral swine to wildlife officials might lead to yet another invasion: avid hog hunters.
“From a landowner’s perspective, they don’t want to be harassed by folks wanting to hunt on their land,” said Mike Dye, DGIF district wildlife biologist for eight counties, including Culpeper. Many prefer to let a few, trusted individuals hunt for hogs on their land to keep the numbers down.
But it turns out that even well-
intentioned amateur hunters aren’t equipped to control, let alone eradicate, feral hogs. Once they start feeling pressure from hunting — or trapping — they become very difficult to find or catch.
“It’s been well-proven that hunting doesn’t control the hogs,” said Jeff Rumbaugh, Virginia wildlife biologist for U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services, one of the lead agencies working on the control and eradication of feral hogs. Yet, because the hogs are labeled a nuisance species in Virginia, any licensed hunter may kill a feral hog, day or night, 365 days a year.
Worse yet, hog hunting may result in more feral hogs, because it breeds what wildlife managers Proctor and Rumbaugh call a hog-hunting culture. “The adrenaline of shooting down a 350-pound hog that’s charging at you can be addictive,” Proctor said.
Though there are no known hog hunting preserves in Virginia — enclosing wild animals is illegal — managers suspect that some of the feral swine have been brought from other states for sporting purposes.
Rumbaugh said that aerial hunting may be the most effective means of eradication, but Virginia’s laws currently do not allow it. “This law is on the books for good reason, perhaps, but it’s unfortunate, because this would be the best way to get rid of them.”
So wildlife managers are left with trapping — and education — as their main tools of control.
Hogs can be both a nuisance species and a livestock animal, according to the regulations in Virginia, so if they happen to break out and get free, they have protection as livestock. At the same time, by definition, if they aren’t claimed by anyone, they are considered feral.
To complicate matters, some Virginia counties are “fence out” counties, which make it the landowner’s responsibility to keep any unwanted livestock out. “If your neighbor has hogs, and they happen to get free, they have protection as livestock,” Procter said.
But feral hogs can be black, brown, striped, or even the pinkish hues associated with domestic swine. “There’s no technical way to distinguish between feral hog and livestock pig, and that’s the biggest part of the problem,” Dye said.
And there are some farmers in Virginia who still let their pigs roam free. “So from a regulation standpoint, we don’t want to do anything that’s going to hurt the small farmer,” Dye said.
The task force is tackling the overlapping and conflicting laws one at a time, trying to build support in all quarters for the regulatory changes that would clarify liability and eventually allow limited aerial hunting. “So educating the public, especially landowners and hunters, is really key,” Proctor said.
Pennsylvania has similar issues, plus more than 200 small farmers who are raising heritage hogs. “These hogs are pasture-raised, and part of the move toward sustainable agriculture,” said Harris Glass, Pennsylvania state director of the USDA Wildlife Services. But these farming operations aren’t regulated, and Glass is concerned about escapees.
Pennsylvania also has a growing number of legal hog shooting preserves, Glass said. “In 2009, we had about 13 of them. Today we have close to 40.” Pennsylvania officials are drafting regulatory language, but a recent move to ban the shooting preserves was beaten by a strong hunting lobby.
State and federal officials consider Maryland “feral free.” According to Kevin Sullivan, Maryland’s USDA Wildlife Services coordinator, “There is no reproducing, self-sustaining swine population in Maryland.”
Virginia’s Eastern Shore counties are also reported to be free of feral swine.
The USDA kicked off a national effort in April 2014 to reduce “the devastating damage caused by feral, or free-ranging, swine,” calling them “one of the most destructive invaders a state can have. The goal of the campaign, which includes resources for states like Virginia and Pennsylvania, is to stabilize feral swine damage within 10 years and eliminate hogs altogether from two states every three to five years.
This is an ambitious goal to set against an intelligent, four-legged, free-ranging invasive species that is giving wildlife professionals in Virginia a run for their money, and time.
For information about Virginia feral hogs, visit www.dgif.virginia.gov/wildlife/feral-hogs/.
The VDGIF has a toll-free hotline for feral swine sightings and problems: Virginia Wildlife Conflict Helpline, 1-855-571-9003.