WILL WE SOON HAVE TOO MUCH BACON?

by Whit Gibbons

October 12, 2014

Some folks would say there is no such thing as too much bacon. They might agree, however, there is such a thing as too many pigs. Sarah Webster, a University of Georgia graduate student, conducts research on wild pigs. Studies by Sarah, Dave Keiter, and others in Jim Beasley’s research program at the Savannah River Ecology Lab, address the numerous problems associated with the increase in wild pig population throughout much of the country. Sarah’s goal is to gain a better overall understanding of wild pig population structure and ecology.

The terms wild or feral pigs, hogs, and swine are interchangeable. According to Sarah these non-native, free-ranging “pigs were first domesticated from Eurasian (sometimes known as Russian) boars approximately 8,000 to 10,000 years ago. They were brought to America by settlers and first released in the 1500s.” Feral pig populations are growing at a disturbing rate. In 1982 they ran wild in 16 states, including all of those in the Southeast. In 2004 they occurred in 27 states. They are now found in 39. At least 5 million wild pigs are estimated to be in the United States, the highest numbers being in California, Oklahoma, Texas, and Florida.

The first concern someone might have when encountering a feral pig in the wild is whether it will attack. A sow with piglets might protect her young, as many mothers do, and reports have been made of boars charging people. My own experience with dozens of wild pigs I have met over the years in forests, fields, and swamps is that they just want to get away. The two main dangers from wild pigs are less exciting than being attacked and more insidious—property damage and disease transmission.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, wild pigs are known to carry “over 30 diseases and 37 parasites that can be transmitted to livestock, people, pets, and wildlife.” Sarah notes that these include the infectious bacterial diseases brucellosis (undulant fever) and leptospirosis, to which people and dogs as well as farm animals are susceptible. Sarcoptic mange, salmonella, pseudorabies caused by a virus, and toxoplasmosis caused by a parasitic protozoan are other unsavory diseases that can be spread by wild pigs not only to domestic livestock but also in some instances to people.

Domestic pigs, the ones we get bacon, ham, and barbecue from, are kept in contained areas and regulated by a variety of federal health safety standards. Pigs become a nuisance when they become feral with no controls on their activities. Property damage is a significant problem, and the impacts are usually obvious. Pigs uproot native vegetation and wildlife habitat, golf courses, and agricultural crops by “feeding, rooting, wallowing, and trampling.” The annual damage caused by wild hogs is estimated to be as much as $1.5 billion.

The USDA encourages nationwide management to control the spread of feral pig populations. Removal by trapping and hunting are allowed in many areas to reduce population sizes. The USDA asks that people “report feral swine activity to the proper wildlife and agriculture officials in your state.” Most states have strict regulations against trapping, transporting, or releasing feral hogs into unoccupied territories as game animals. Despite this, the once-common practice is still continued illegally by irresponsible individuals. Recent reports indicate that feral hogs have moved into some suburban areas, where they destroy horticultural plants, gardens, and lawns.

Sarah, Jim, Dave and others are taking an important initial step in effective wildlife management and population control programs for wild pig populations by gathering background data and conducting research to answer basic questions about a species. They are also research partners in cooperative programs with the U.S. Forest Service and the USDA-APHIS-National Wildlife Research Center. Studies include estimating sizes of wild pig populations, determining their genetic structure, and establishing home range sizes and use of resources. All are critical to address the burgeoning problems caused by this paradoxical species that gives us bacon and environmental problems.

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