East Texas feral hog numbers high

A Texas Cooperative Extension survey of 491 East Texas landowners indicates that feral hog populations dramatically increased during the last 10 years.

Prior to the survey, it was known that feral hog numbers were rapidly rising in East Texas starting in the mid-1980s. But the survey indicated the rate of increase since the mid-1990s was nearly double that of a few years earlier. This rapid increase came as a surprise, said Billy Higginbotham, Extension wildlife and fisheries specialist, and conductor of the survey.

Another surprise was the number of negative comments from landowners about feral hogs. The animals are hunted for sport in East Texas, but when those surveyed were invited to add comments, not one was positive.

“I expected a few to say that they liked the supplemental income they received from leasing hunting rights, but not one had this or anything else good to say about feral hogs,” Higginbotham said.

One landowner wrote, “I fear allowing my grandchildren to go beyond the yard as they might be attacked by wild hogs.”

Another noted that his neighbor “has had colts and horses cut up because of feral hogs.”

Other comments ranged from a plaintive “please help” to an adamant “exterminate the things” to a constructive comment of “the state needs a program to get rid of these hogs.”

Eradication unlikely

But though Extension's Wildlife Services division provides wild-animal control, its wildlife biologists have long backlogs, Higginbotham noted. And even if they weren't backlogged, no one is ever likely to eradicate feral hogs. A conservative estimate puts their numbers statewide at 1.5 million.

“We don't really know how many there are. In West Texas, aerial surveys and the like can be conducted to give a fair idea, but in East Texas they have too much escape cover,” he said.

Higginbotham surveyed landowners from 40 East Texas counties. The survey questionnaire was originally designed by Higginbotham's colleague, Clark Adams, professor with the department of wildlife and fisheries sciences at Texas A&M University in College Station. Adams' survey of landowners west of Interstate 35 also indicated a general trend of increasing hog numbers.

Instead of mailing out the survey in East Texas, Higginbotham and Extension agents conducted the survey at pesticide re-certification meetings throughout the region from October 2003 through January 2004. Primarily rural landowners, particularly those who are actively engaged in agriculture, attend such meetings.

The survey consisted of 15 questions about feral hogs, most of which were multiple-choice. The questions addressed such issues as control and how it was conducted, whether hogs were considered an asset or a liability, and property damage attributable to hogs.

Sightings increase

One question asked what year the landowners first noticed feral hogs on their property. The counts gradually increased from five new sightings before 1978, to 17 in the 1978-1983 time span. The following 5 five-year time spans, 1984-1988 and 1989-1993, show 24 to 56, respectively.

The number of respondents who reported seeing feral hogs for the first time jumped to 109 for the 1994-1998 time span. And 90 survey respondents reported seeing hogs in the last five years.

“The reports leveled off some for the last five years, but it's still clear the dramatic rise of first-time sightings continued,” Higginbotham said.

Why the steady climb and then an increase? Did the feral hog population suddenly reach some sort of critical mass and then explode? Or was it just a matter of an increased awareness of feral hogs?

Higginbotham frankly admits this is not known for sure, but from earlier attempts at a hog census, he expects it's just as it seems: Increased awareness by landowners may play a role, but the numbers are definitely rising.

“Usually how landowners become aware they have feral hogs is they start noticing damage, and that becomes more obvious as numbers increase,” Higginbotham said.

Feral hogs damage and dirty ponds and streams by wallowing, rooting up roads and hay fields, undermining fences and stealing feed put out for livestock. Because they are aggressive and will eat some of the same foods, they will compete with white-tailed deer and other wildlife species.

When asked to evaluate the damage feral hogs have done since arriving, most of the landowners put the cost in the thousands of dollars. The average damage reported by all respondents was $4,184.

Management costly

Most of the landowners surveyed had tried some means of reducing the numbers. More than 40 percent reported they relied on shooting; the second popular method was trapping at 37 percent; trailing dogs came in a distant third at 10 percent. The average spent by the respondents trying to manage and control feral hogs was $1,036.

“Many landowners hate the thought of feral hogs on their properties because of crop and ranch facility damage, livestock depredation, disease transmission and competition for food with livestock and wildlife,” Higginbotham said.

On the flip side, however, many hunters see feral hogs as an extremely popular game species.

Another Extension survey done in 1993 reported hog hunters paid in a range of $25-$1,000 for a hog hunt with the average price paid $169.

“This represents a real opportunity for those landowners already locked in a battle to reduce hog populations,” Higginbotham said.

Higginbotham also noted because feral hogs are elusive, usually nocturnal and prefer dense cover, shooting rarely has much effect upon the population.

“The first recommendation is to use live-traps, and then bring in trailing and catch dogs.

“We know that Texas has more feral hogs than any other state. With 1.5 million in the state, we will never eradicate them. The best we can hope for is to keep their numbers under control,” he said.

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