Wild Hogs in Texas: Where do we go from here?
A question and answer conversation with Billy Higginbotham, an Agrilife Extension wildlife specialist and well-known expert on feral pig control measures. Higginbotham is famous for saying, “we have to remove 60 to 70 percent of our wild hogs each year just to maintain the current population.”
Basecamp Texas: Let’s start from the beginning. Although wild pigs have been in Texas for centuries, they haven’t been much of a problem until the last few decades. What happened?
Billy Higginbotham: That’s an accurate statement. In today’s Texas, there are but two kinds of landowners — those with wild pigs and those about to have wild pigs. The Perfect Storm was created by moving/releasing wild pigs into new habitats with little or no competition from native wildlife in combination with the highest reproductive rate of any ungulate species found worldwide. I also believe their almost unlimited access to nutritional supplement (shelled corn, pelleted rations) meant for white-tailed deer on the 83 million acres of habitat they share in Texas has resulted in more pigs on the ground. Fortunately, we can address the access to supplement issue by properly fencing our feeders/feeding stations.
BCT: We’ve been hearing for years that wild hogs will take over the state because of their prolific breeding habits and size of their litters. Is it happening? Is the population increase noticeable? Is there any way to know for sure? Are we removing 60 or 70 percent of the hog population each year?
Higginbotham: Population models suggest that between 50% and 70% of a given pig population must be removed annually just to hold the population stable. Our Texas population model developed recently suggests 66% should be removed to hold the population stable. A sow is an average of 13 months of age when she has her first litter, they average 1 ½ litters per year and the average litter contains 5 to 6 piglets.
BCT: If no dramatic change occurs in our control methods, what will the Texas population of wild hogs be in 10 years? Twenty years?
Higginbotham: I believe there will be continued growth in the next few years but a number of conditions can check that population growth—the 2011 drought is an example that probably caused negative growth in some parts of the state.
We estimated that in 2010, human-induced removal through our 4 legal control methods: shooting, trapping, dogs and snares removed about 29% of our current population or roughly 750,000 pigs annually from an estimated population of 2.6 million in Texas. Also, as we become more efficient at control, educate landowners on the use of proper control techniques and new tools for control become available, we should be able to remove a higher percentage of the population. Populations appear to be increasing at roughly 20% a year. With current tools available, eradication is not possible in Texas. However, we have shown we can be very successful at damage abatement by removing pigs.
BCT: Last year, the state approved the aerial shooting of wild pigs. It was hoped that in the limited areas where helicopters can access wild hog habitat, a real impact on populations could be realized. Yet, recent newspaper articles have questioned the effectiveness of ‘hog chopping’. What is your assessment of this method? (Article from Caller -Times)
Higginbotham: I have not seen the data set for the numbers of pigs removed as a result of this law so it may be too early to assess the impacts of the one-year-old legislation. But, I do know that Wildlife Services (WS) —part of AgriLife Extension — is very efficient at removing pigs from the air. Highly trained personnel can remove enough pigs in high- density populations to reduce the cost per pig removed to the $15 to $20 range. WS removes between 12,000 and 13,000 pigs from the air each year—about half of the total number they take annually. It is more of a matter of if damage was significantly reduced and not necessarily just the number of pigs removed that is important.
BCT: Basecamp Texas follows the stories across the country related to the spread of feral pigs in a segment called Wild Hog Diaries. Other states where the pigs are appearing now seem to be very proactive in trying to eliminate them before they get out of control. Years ago, when the problem was surfacing in Texas, could we have done anything different? Should we have?
Higginbotham: Years ago, I am sure no one realized the impact pigs would have not just on agriculture but to native wildlife species, other natural resources, suburban greenspaces and damage to vehicles and other equipment. There is no question that moving and releasing pigs—presumably for hunting purposes contributed to the problem. Hindsight is always 20/20. Today, states with developing pig populations have the benefit of seeing what has happened in many southern states and they have become very proactive about control. In those cases, they may well be capable of eradicating the pigs if they are out in front of the problem. In certain cases like Kansas and Nebraska, they have outlawed pig hunting in order to eliminate the incentive to import and release pigs for hunting purposes. (The Wichita Eagle article)
BCT: Many of the landowners I know are glad they have wild pigs on their property because of the extra income they provide. The pigs do seem to provide a cheaper hunting alternative to more expensive whitetail hunts. Have you noticed a shift in landowner attitudes about pigs?
Higginbotham: I don’t know about “many” landowners but certainly some have capitalized on the fact that pigs are there and they can be marketed for hunting purposes—especially when the normal hunting seasons are closed. Certainly the cost is going to be less in many cases so that will appeal to a great number of hunters that want to extend their hunting season. An important point to make to those landowners managing their properties for native wildlife, especially white-tailed deer: your tolerance for wild pigs on the same property needs to be very, very low. In other words, if deer are important to you, get rid of the pigs by any legal means at your disposal.
BCT: Every story about wild hogs mentions the diseases that can be spread by them. But we hardly ever hear about humans contracting the ailments. Is it really a problem? How many people contract a disease from pigs on a yearly basis?
Higginbotham: Wild pigs can carry well over a dozen different diseases. It seems that every year in Texas, one or two pig hunters contract brucellosis from wild pigs. My advice to pig hunters is to wear eye protection and disposable rubber or latex gloves during the cleaning process and thoroughly wash all knives and saws in hot, soapy water. Also, since many hunts take place in warmer weather, go prepared and get the meat cooled down and refrigerated or in coolers with ice as quickly as possible to prevent spoilage. Lastly, pork being pork, thoroughly cook the meat before consuming it.
BCT: In some media reports, wild pigs are akin to the devil. Are there some myths you’d like to clear up in regards to some of the reports you’ve seen about pigs?
Higginbotham: The myths surrounding wild pigs are too numerous to address in this limited space. Most of the time and given the choice, wild pigs would rather flee than fight. However, if you have a boar backed up against a creek bank bayed up by dogs, it will not think twice about leaving the scene through you if necessary. Same holds true if you happen to accidentally wander between a sow and her litter of young pigs. But, 99% of the time they will go the opposite direction when given the chance.
Another popular myth, especially among hunters is that recreational hunting equals control. It does not! Studies have shown that sport hunting removes from about 8% to 50% of a pig population, depending on the study. We estimate that recreational hunting alone removes only about 11% of our Texas pig population taken annually. However, add that to what I call “strategic shooting” to the equation (shooting at night with special scopes and via the use of lights, etc.) — then all forms of shooting from ground and air accounted for about 35% of the pigs removed in 2010. (Trapping accounted for about 57% of the total).
BCT: In one game camera photo on this website, 3 dozen piglets are seen at a corn feeder. Those piglets are from just three sows. Why do you think there are so many pigs with the average being about 6 or 8 per litter?
Higginbotham: It is possible to have a sow with a litter containing a dozen pigs. Is that the rule? No, it’s the exception. The averages are much lower (by half) of this number, but wild pigs that originated from domestic stock can produce larger litters. Also and probably more important, sows with access to highly nutritious crops or supplemental feed (intended for deer or cattle) or a heavy acorn crop are capable of producing more eggs because of their enhanced physiological condition and therefore are likely to have more pigs per litter than the average of 5 to 6.
BCT: It does not seem likely that we will be able to decrease the overall hog population in Texas with the tools we now have. In your opinion, what research efforts are needed in the near term to make progress? What about birth control measures? Toxicants?
Higginbotham: It is important to point out that although eradication is not feasible in Texas with the current tools at hand, we can still significantly reduce the damage they cause. AgriLife Extension through Wildlife Services clearly demonstrated that by adopting best management practices using the legal control methods available, economic impact by wild pigs was reduced by 66% in a two year period (2006-07) on several hundred thousand acres of private land. Now, that is not eradication but it does demonstrate that landowners can significantly reduce the impacts wild pigs have on their properties. I believe that sodium nitrite as a toxicant that is currently being researched holds great promise as an additional control tool for 3 reasons: 1) Sodium nitrite (SN) is already USDA approved as a substance that humans consume as a meat preservative (obviously, the devil is in the dose!), 2) SN has no secondary impact on species such as coyotes and vultures that may feed upon a pig carcass, and 3) SN appears to be fast working—within 60 to 90 minutes in most cases—the pigs receiving a lethal dose simply go to sleep and don’t wake up. The research is on-going but I am optimistic that the toxicant will be registered in the next few years. Does the availability of a toxicant suggest that we can eliminate pigs totally in Texas? Not likely, since we have already had them some 450 years, ever since Hernando de Soto’s exploration party crossed into Texas from Arkansas in 1542 with 800 pigs in tow. However, I am all for any legal tool that we can add to the landowner’s toolbox in the war on wild pigs.