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These pigs are used for baying, which is how hunters train their dogs to bring the pigs down. (Wyatt McSpadden)

A Plague of Pigs in Texas

Now numbering in the millions, these shockingly destructive and invasive wild hogs wreak havoc across the southern United States

About 50 miles east of Waco, Texas, a 70-acre field is cratered with holes up to five feet wide and three feet deep. The roots below a huge oak tree shading a creek have been dug out and exposed. Grass has been trampled into paths. Where the grass has been stripped, saplings crowd out the pecan trees that provide food for deer, opossums and other wildlife. A farmer wanting to cut his hay could barely run a tractor through here. There’s no mistaking what has happened—this field has gone to the hogs.

“I’ve trapped 61 of ‘em down here in the last month,” says Tom Quaca, whose in-laws have owned this land for about a century. “But at least we got some hay out of here this year. First time in six years.” Quaca hopes to flatten the earth and crush the saplings with a bulldozer. Then maybe—maybe—the hogs will move onto adjacent hunting grounds and he can once again use his family’s land.

Wild hogs are among the most destructive invasive species in the United States today. Two million to six million of the animals are wreaking havoc in at least 39 states and four Canadian provinces; half are in Texas, where they do some $400 million in damages annually. They tear up recreational areas, occasionally even terrorizing tourists in state and national parks, and squeeze out other wildlife.

Texas allows hunters to kill wild hogs year-round without limits or capture them alive to take to slaughterhouses to be processed and sold to restaurants as exotic meat. Thousands more are shot from helicopters. The goal is not eradication, which few believe possible, but control.

The wily hogs seem to thrive in almost any conditions, climate or ecosystem in the state—the Pineywoods of east Texas; the southern and western brush country; the lush, rolling central Hill Country. They are surprisingly intelligent mammals and evade the best efforts to trap or kill them (and those that have been unsuccessfully hunted are even smarter). They have no natural predators, and there are no legal poisons to use against them. Sows begin breeding at 6 to 8 months of age and have two litters of four to eight piglets—a dozen is not unheard of—every 12 to 15 months during a life span of 4 to 8 years. Even porcine populations reduced by 70 percent return to full strength within two or three years.

Wild hogs are “opportunistic omnivores,” meaning they’ll eat most anything. Using their extra-long snouts, flattened and strengthened on the end by a plate of cartilage, they can root as deep as three feet. They’ll devour or destroy whole fields—of sorghum, rice, wheat, soybeans, potatoes, melons and other fruits, nuts, grass and hay. Farmers planting corn have discovered that the hogs go methodically down the rows during the night, extracting seeds one by one.

Hogs erode the soil and muddy streams and other water sources, possibly causing fish kills. They disrupt native vegetation and make it easier for invasive plants to take hold. The hogs claim any food set out for livestock, and occasionally eat the livestock as well, especially lambs, kids and calves. They also eat such wildlife as deer and quail and feast on the eggs of endangered sea turtles.

Because of their susceptibility to parasites and infections, wild hogs are potential carriers of disease. Swine brucellosis and pseudorabies are the most problematic because of the ease with which they can be transmitted to domestic pigs and the threat they pose to the pork industry.

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