By Jeff Nations
The spread of feral hogs across much of the southeast and mid-Atlantic regions of the United States has been steady and startling since the early 1990s, but the hogs aren't to blame.
Feral hogs are many things -- an invasive species capable of causing enormous damage to virtually any habitat, prolific breeders with a well-earned reputation as one of the worst carriers of parasites and disease -- but what they aren't is a migratory species.
How then have sightings of feral hogs been reported in 45 states and nearly every region in Virginia?
"Feral hogs don't migrate like plains animals or caribou," said Aaron Proctor, a district wildlife biologist for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. "They are moved by humans, usually for the purpose of establishing a population for sporting purposes."
Among the dwindling locations that sightings of feral hogs have not been reported in Virginia is the lower Shenandoah Valley, with none seen so far in Frederick, Warren or Shenandoah counties. There have been sightings -- not necessarily breeding populations -- as close by as Loudoun County, and the threat of a purposeful introduction virtually anywhere is always a possibility.
Once established as a breeding population, feral hogs are nearly impossible to eradicate. Proctor said a sow could produce two to three litters a year, with up to eight piglets per litter. That means a population can triple in 14 to 16 months. And adult feral hogs -- also known as feral pigs, wild pigs and wild boars, among other names -- have no natural predators aside from humans in Virginia. Black bears, bobcats and coyotes can take a piglet but will refrain from tangling with a feral hog above more than 40 pounds.
Feral hogs are direct competitors with native species for food and territory, can have a massively damaging impact on native plants and are potentially dangerous for humans to encounter. Weighing upwards of 200 pounds, mature boars can be fearless and easily provoked to charge.
"What you have is a perfect nuisance species," Proctor said. "They're one of the most destructive species around wherever they're located, whether it's cropland, forest land, a golf course or somebody's nice, manicured lawn. They tear up the landscape by rooting.
"They are also one of the filthiest wild animals to deal with -- they carry more than 40 internal and external parasites. They can spread Pseudorabies, which can kill an infected domestic animal within 24 hours."
Virginia is still in better shape than many neighboring states in regards to the feral hog problem. Hunting pens are illegal and there is no strong hog hunting tradition in the state, helping keep the population distributions and densities still relatively low compared to neighboring states like Tennessee and North Carolina.
The state's complicated fencing laws, which vary from county to county, remains an issue. In some counties, it is the property owner's responsibility to fence out livestock from entering. That means feral swine roaming onto adjacent properties could be considered livestock if claimed by a neighboring property owner. The VDGIF classifies feral hogs as both a predatory and undesirable animal and a nuisance animal, but they can still be considered a livestock animal under state law.
Biologists refer to the rapid spread of feral hogs nationally from about 1990 onward as "the pig bomb." That's when some northern states, including Michigan and Pennsylvania, began to establish private game preserves for the purpose of hunting feral hogs. Escaped hogs soon established breeding populations in those states, and others were actively transported to new locations by some individuals.
"What states across the country have found, especially in areas of the southeast, is that there are hunters out there who enjoy hunting these animals," Proctor said. "It creates a market and demand for hog hunting, which in turn encourages these people to put them in a trailer or pickup to transport them to another location and set them up there. Hogs don't need help from humans to survive."
That desirability as a prime game species has helped the feral hog population thrive, despite the enthusiasm of some hunters to harvest the animals. Television reality shows like "American Hoggers" perpetuate the idea that hunting pressure can control the spread of feral hogs. Since they are an invasive species, there is a widespread belief that hunting the potentially dangerous animals is a productive and helpful pursuit. The problem with that thinking, Proctor said, is that once a feral hog population is established it is impossible to eradicate. To stabilize the population, 70 percent of the animals must be removed each year.
"Hog hunting may seem like fun, and it may seem like it's beneficial by being an effective control," Proctor said. "It does quite the opposite -- hogs that create hunting create more hogs, and that's a problem."
Ultimately, eliminating the demand for feral hogs could be the best policy for controlling and eventually eradicating the species from Virginia.
"Some people want this population to grow and take off," Proctor said. "Most of our hunters are ethical-minded people, but there are obviously some rogue individuals out there who want these animals to shoot for sport."
Contact staff writer Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org