Separating fact from fiction is becoming a little easier as research reveals more about Texas feral hogs, but we still have a lot to learn about this exotic pest that has inhabited our state for the past 450 years, says Jason Ott, Texas AgriLife Extension agent for Nueces County, Robstown.
Ott debunks many of the prevailing feral hog myths in his weekly newsletter.
“Tops among the myths are estimates of the actual number of feral hogs in Texas, according to Billy Higginbotham, Texas AgriLife Extension wildlife and fisheries specialist. A common number that has been bantered about for years is 1 to 4 million. But there was just no data to support this estimate.”
Ott said that changed when Dr. Roel Lopez, associate director of the Texas A&M University Institute for Renewable Natural Resources, recently used geographic information system (GIS) procedures to turn guesstimates into reliable estimates. “Using GIS techniques, Lopez was able to quantify first the extent of the feral hog habitat in Texas. He estimates that approximately 134 million acres, or 79 percent of the state’s 170 million acres, represents feral hog habitat.
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“By knowing the range of feral hog habitat and the species population density in various types of Texas environments, Lopez came up with a population estimate that has some meat to it,” Ott adds. Lopez figures the actual number ranges from a low of 1.9 million to a high of 3.4 million.
Exaggerated claims of feral hog population-growth rates are a related myth, Ott says.
“Many of the population guesstimates are based on a purely arbitrary number of hogs in Texas being set at 1 million in the 1970s. This number, which also had no research basis, is often extrapolated using another bit of misinformation: because of feral hogs’ high birth rates, their population is doubling every year.”
So what are the facts?
Ott says a 2011 consolidation of past studies developed by Lopez’s graduate student, Janell Mellish, shows the average litter size in Texas and the Southeast is 5.6 pigs.
“It is also known, that on average, a sow is about 13 months old when she has her first litter, and also on average, mature sows have 1.5 litters per year. This means a significant population growth rate, but a far cry from the doubling-yearly myth.”
Lopez and Mellish estimate that the population growth of feral hogs in Texas averages from 18 percent to 20 percent annually. Consequently, it would take almost five years for a population to double in size if left unchecked.
The Lopez and Mellish study used three methods to estimate feral pig population growth in Texas: the statewide number of aerial permits issued for shooting feral hogs; the number of pigs processed in commercial processing facilities; and feral hog control data made available from U.S. Department of Agriculture-Wildlife Services.
Another common myth is that recreational hunting alone can control feral hog populations, according to Higginbotham.
“Of the dozen studies conducted across the nation, hunting removes from 8 percent to 50 percent of a population, with an average of 24 percent across all studies. In order to hold a population stable, with no growth, 60 percent to 70 percent of a feral hog population would have to be removed annually.
“Another myth is that it’s possible to identify the breed of a given feral hog by its color markings. Today’s feral hogs are descended from domestic breeds, Eurasian wild boars and, of course, hybrids of the two. But despite claims to the contrary, simply observing the color patterns, hair characteristics and size cannot definitively identify which of the three types an individual hog falls into.”
Damage is no myth
One thing about feral hogs that is definitely not a myth is the huge amount of damage they do to crops, wildlife habitat and landscapes. “And from all indications, that damage is expanding in scope and range.”
At one time, feral hogs were mostly a rural or agricultural issue in Texas, “inflicting over $52 million in damage annually. But they have literally moved to town and are now causing significant damage in urban and suburban communities. This damage includes rooting landscapes, parks, lawns, golf courses, sports fields and even cemeteries, as they search for food.”
Some estimates show a single hog can cause more than $200 in damage a year.
“The $200-per-hog estimate doesn’t include the damage feral hogs do as they compete with other wildlife species, such as whitetail deer, for food and habitat. And some of the species challenged by feral hog invasions are endangered species.”
Ott says experts agree that landowners actively engaged in deer management should have a very low tolerance for feral hogs. And they do have options. “Texas AgriLife Extension Service has demonstrated that through education and outreach along with Wildlife Services-led control efforts, damage can be significantly reduced. In a 2006-07 study funded by the Texas Department of Agriculture, agricultural damage was reduced by 66 percent via control efforts in just two years.”
That means significant savings from costly damage. “Since 2007, subsequent studies by AgriLife Extension and again funded by the state’s department of agriculture confirmed that control measures such as trapping and shooting ‘prevented millions of dollars in damage by reducing feral hog populations.’”
Landowners can make a difference and are the first line of defense “since Texas is 95 percent privately owned land. This means arming the public with Best Management Practices and using various legal control methods to abate the damage by reducing feral hog populations.”
Ott says landowners and property managers have many options for information, including: http://feralhogs.tamu.edu  or through Texas A&M AgriLife Extension offices. The AgriLife office in Nueces County is at 710 East Main, Suite 1 in Robstown or at http://nueces.agrilife.org/ .
Farmers, ranchers, landowners and others also have many opportunities to learn more about feral hog control through county and regional conferences and seminars. Escalating feral hog numbers have prompted the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service to conduct educational workshops throughout the state.
“We try to keep the topics of these workshops pertinent to a particular region by addressing issues specific to that area,” said Jared Timmons, AgriLife Extension associate with the Department Of Wildlife And Fisheries Sciences stationed at San Marcos.
Some counties are using funds from a County Hog Abatement Matching Program or CHAMP, to address the feral hog issue.
“CHAMP is a grant from the Texas Department of Agriculture meant to assist counties with feral hog abatement,” says Dan Gaskins, AgriLife Extension assistant in Gatesville. “Coryell, Hamilton, Falls, Milam and Bell counties received a total of $25,000 in state funds that they must match for a total of $50,000 or $10,000 per county.”
Since part of that money must be used for educational purposes, Hamilton and Coryell counties recently joined forces to develop an area-wide workshop.
Part of the educational efforts includes debunking many of the myths. Separating fact from fiction improves the odds of managing one of the most damaging pests in Texas agriculture.