Officials representing a half-dozen groups including federal and New Mexico state agencies gathered last week in Albuquerque to evaluate progress of the first officially sanctioned feral hog eradication program, launched earlier this year.
United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Under Secretary Edward Avalos was on hand to entertain a panel of program participants for an early, four-month program update on eradication efforts designed to eliminate the current and future threat posed by growing numbers of wild hogs across New Mexico.
USDA Wildlife Services State Director Alan May says the eradication program represents a partnership between state and federal agencies and a number of agricultural and wildlife stakeholders in New Mexico who petitioned USDA for matching funding to launch the program, the first of its scope and kind in the nation.
"Problems associated with the proliferation of feral hogs have been growing across a good many states in recent years and represent a real threat to agriculture and wildlife. While New Mexico is just beginning to feel the threat of increased hog populations in some of our areas, we know these very invasive animals can bring diseases and present other undesirable risks that can endanger animals, including livestock and wildlife and even humans," May said.
He said that it was through a coalition of stakeholders that the idea behind a major statewide eradication program was born. Realizing escalating reports of increased populations of feral hogs in places like southeastern New Mexico along the Pecos River meant the problem was getting bigger. May said officials were not surprised to learn that soon wild hog reports began filtering in from other areas.
Mescalero Apache tribal officials were concerned about apple orchards and sensitive agriculture and livestock areas in the southern mountains around Cloudcroft. Rio Grande
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Valley chili pepper growers and pecan producers in the south were becoming more concerned about the potential for hog troubles and crop damages in that area.
"What eventually emerged was a coalition of officials and stakeholders who believed that if we were to ever make a stand against this invasive threat the time had come to do it, so collectively we asked Under Secretary Avalos for USDA's support and funding," he said.
Avalos identified USDA funds for the project, but it required local matching funds to secure the grant. Local contributions could be either cash funds or in-kind contributions, including the dedication of equipment and/or manpower towards the project.
State of New Mexico officials, county agents, wildlife officials, livestock and other stakeholder groups in New Mexico met and drafted a plan to initiate an eradication program that enlisted wide ranging support from local governments and communities and involved various types of activities including building field traps at the local level and using them to ensnare entire feral hog sounders. It also included aerial hunting of the invasive animals from helicopters.
Coalition crosses public/private lines
Mays says in addition to Avalos, officials attending the panel last week included Secretary Director of the New Mexico Department of Agriculture Jeff Witte, New Mexico State Land Commissioner Dr. Ray Powell, New Mexico Department of Game and Fish Director Jim Lane and New Mexico rancher Bill Humphreys, representing the New Mexico Cattle Growers' Association.
"In the absence of any feral swine control, we can certainly expect to have feral swine in all 33 of New Mexico's counties. Right now we think we have feral hogs in 17 counties, up from just two counties eight years ago. It's a growing problem and is further complicated by a trending drought which makes watering holes and streams and rivers very critical areas to protect. With (fewer) watering holes and higher feral swine populations we could be looking at greater risks for transmission of animal diseases, contaminated water sources, competition with native wildlife for food and water, and even the spread of invasive weeds," May said.
Program funding from USDA came in the form of a demonstration grant designed to uncover the best methods to achieve eradication of invasive feral swine and to provide an outline of program practices. May says in New Mexico not only are government agency support and public and private support being offered as part of the project but even agriculture students at high schools in the state have been providing the labor to build trapping systems used in the program.
"We put our eradication team together a year or so ago and pulled our plan together this year to launch and prosecute this program and we are well on that road, though we have a long way to go," May reported. "We received funding from USDA in January, launched the program in February and have already removed or eradicated a little over 400 feral swine so far and are now moving into new areas."
The eradication program is, of course, in its infant stage, May says, but officials report much has been accomplished. Fourteen of the 17 counties with known feral swine populations have been or are being worked to reduce swine populations. Particular success has been experienced in the Middle Rio Grande Valley where hog populations now appear to be in control and are being managed.
"We expect this to be a five-year program. We have feral swine scattered across large areas but not in high concentrations. This is a large state and there are many remote wilderness areas, so eradication can't be an overnight project. In spite of our successes, our work is just getting underway, but we know the clock is ticking. We'll stay with the program until we can control our hogs, and hopefully any success we can achieve will lead others to a plan and a program that works in their areas," May said.