About a year ago a number of farmers, ranchers, state and federal wildlife officials in New Mexico joined forces to tackle the escalating risks being caused by the rapid proliferation of feral swine across the Southwest.
With seed-funding from USDA-APHIS, the first-ever federally authorized feral swine management and control project was launched and included the participation of local, state and federal agencies. Control methods will include trapping and eradication operations exclusively in targeted and vulnerable areas of New Mexico.
"Feral swine have been an increasing problem across the United States for a number of years now and over the last year or so we have been trying to promote and develop interest among state groups, representatives from industry, the public sector and tribal leaders to see if there was enough interest in developing a national strategy to address the feral swine issue," said William H. Clay, Deputy Administrator, USDA/APHIS/Wildlife Services in Washington, DC.
A little over a year after the New Mexico pilot program launched, the agency is ready to ramp up efforts to introduce control and management operations to other areas of the country.
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"With funding from Congress and armed with a greater awareness of the issue and how to deal with it, we begin to take our management and control strategy to a wider front now, starting with states where control efforts can make a major impact on the growth of swine populations," Clay added.
Statistically, feral swine are the most abundant free-ranging, exotic ungulate in the United States and have become widespread because of their reproductive potential and adaptability to a wide range of habitats. Like domestic swine, litter size depends on the sow’s age, nutrition, and time of year. Feral swine are capable of producing two litters per year with average litter size varying from 4.2 to 7.5 piglets.
With the ability to propagate rapidly, it shouldn't be surprising to learn that the negative economic impact from feral swine is rapidly expanding. Last year's damage was estimated to be about $1.5 billion, over half of that to agriculture operations. Clay says the national population of feral hogs currently stands at about 5.5 million animals but is constantly growing.
"Thirty years ago we could find pockets of feral swine populations in 17 states, and this year we can easily find them in 39 states, including Hawaii, and I think that number is low; 40 or 41 states is more accurate," Clay said. "So APHIS has developed a national initiative and will play the lead in this, but the effort will also include state wildlife and agriculture agencies, industry groups, private landowners and others, a uniform effort to protect the various sectors under threat by the feral swine problem including agriculture resources, natural resources, protecting property and public health and safety issues."
Clay said how management and control in each area will depend on the state agencies involved. APHIS Wildlife Services is not playing a regulatory role and only works on a request basis, so whether to reduce feral swine populations or whether to better focus on reducing damages in high stressed areas will depend on the state and local authorities involved in the effort.
"In some states, like Texas, where half the nation's feral swine can be found, and in California and Florida, we know we can't eradicate them completely, but there are other states—like North Dakota, New Mexico, Arizona, Washington, Oregon and some of the northeastern states—where the problem hasn't become deeply rooted yet; here we stand a fair chance of eradicating the problem," he said.
Clay says control efforts will include a variety of traps, some of them large enough to trap dozens of swine or an entire sounder, but the deployment of aircraft, primarily helicopters, will also help to reduce populations, especially in sensitive areas. He says, however, that many states, including Texas, California and some southern states will want to maintain enough feral swine to meet hunting demands, and population reduction efforts would be limited to specific areas within these states.
"For instance, in California, around San Diego they would like to achieve complete eradication because of the very real threat feral swine pose to ground nesting endangered species found in the county. Similar to that, in Texas and Gulf Coast states we need to protect nesting sea turtles and this is work we can expedite."
While wild hog populations have been around for some time, the growing proliferation of wild swine and the problems they pose have increased across several sectors at an alarming rate in recent times. In terms of economic impact, the hardest hit each year is the agriculture industry. Not far behind are concerns for protecting natural resources, the environment, and for the threat to wildlife and the spread of animal diseases.
While feral swine populations thrived and grew rapidly over the last decade, wildlife officials now believe appropriate control efforts can help maintain the balance, and the faster the response the better the result. In fact, rapid deployment of the initiative should be expected. Congress authorized $20 million in support of feral swine control and management, but four months into the year APHIS is just now seeing the funds roll out.
"So we will be hitting the road running in the very near future. But it will have to be done with close cooperation among state agencies and federal agency officials in those states because this is a very large initiative; no agency alone can deal with this problem. It's too big."
While the $20 million funding from Congress ends in September, Clay says APHIS is confident that lawmakers are now adequately aware of the seriousness of the feral swine problem and believes they are committed to providing continued multi-year support.
"A problem this big isn't going to go away in a year or two. Going into this we remain hopeful we can eradicate feral swine populations in those states where the problem hasn't become deeply rooted already, and we can further help to reduce and manage damages in sensitive areas in states where population levels are already critical, but it won't happen overnight."