Thursday, February 4, 2016

Feral hogs

Did you know that (as of 2014) feral hogs have been documented in 99 percent of our 254 Texas counties? That's according to Josh Helcel, an extension associate with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service in Burnet.

Yesterday, he spoke on the topic to Texas Master Naturalists (including me) with the Highland Lakes chapter. In the interest of educating others, I thought I'd share some of his insights here.

First of all, NEVER go after a wounded or cornered pig or one with babies. Feral hogs can be VERY aggressive and dangerous when threatened. 

"Feral hogs are literally everywhere, somewhere to the tune of 2.6 million in Texas," said Helcel, who's known as the Pig Man and Hog Man among his colleagues. "But more recent estimates put the numbers at 3.5 million to 5 million."

"There are more feral hogs in Texas than everywhere else in the world combined," he said. "But we also have more deer feeders and supplemental feeders in Texas, too (which attract the pigs)."

Ecological and wildlife impacts
They need water because they have no sweat glands, Helcel said. Their thermo-regulation is accomplished by wallowing, which impacts water quality. In addition to potentially destroying riparian areas, feral pigs can contaminate water, increase run off and impair watersheds. 

Their wallowing and rooting can also negatively impact native species, such as live oak and hickory. The flip side: Chinese tallows and other invasives can move in. 

Feral pigs kill and eat ground-nesting birds, fawns and other wildlife. They destroy native habitat and compete with native species for resources (water, food and cover). They also carry Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses. 

Highly successful animals
"Their success is due to their intelligence and adaptability," Helcel said. Behind chimps, pigs claim the second highest intelligence among mammals.

A high rate of reproduction also boosts their success. "Pigs are the most reproductive successful mammal worldwide," Helcel said. "They are sexually viable at six to 10 months of age." Their gestation period is three months, three weeks, and three days. The older a sow grows, the more litters she annually produces, too. In less than two years, 42 pigs can be traced back to one sow, Helcel said. 

"We have to remove 66 percent (of feral pigs) annually in order to maintain current populations," Helcel continued. "Currently, though, we're only removing 29 percent of the population annually. A lot needs to be done."

Control measures
Legally, control options include trapping, snaring, shooting, aerial guns and trained dogs. According to Helcel, the most effective method is to use corral traps that are large enough to capture an entire "sounder" (a sow and her babies). He recommended using 5-foot-high cattle pen panels (he showed a video that documents a pig sprinting over a 4-foot-high panel) and even using existing deer feeders within a corral trap.

"You must remove feral pigs at the sounder level it you want to impact their numbers," Helcel said. 

Read more about feral hogs at Wild Wonderings, a blog written by Josh Helcel and other Extension experts, and The Feral Hog in Texas by wildlife biologist Rick Taylor.

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