VALLEY FALLS - Wildlife officials in New York may ban captive boar hunts as they try to curb a growing feral hog population before it gets as bad as it is in Southern states, where roaming droves have devastated crops and wildlife habitat with their rooting, wallowing and voracious foraging.
Feral swine are breeding in three counties in central New York, according to a federal study done last year with funding from New York's Invasive Species Council. The wild population statewide is likely in the hundreds, said Gordon Batcheller, head of the state Department of Environmental Conservation's Bureau of Wildlife.
That's small compared with Texas, where biologists estimate the feral hog population at around 2 million, but Batcheller said any number is bad because they're certain to multiply. Damage becomes more noticeable when the population reaches the thousands and the hogs stake out home territories rather than wandering widely.
Eurasian wild boars have become popular on private hunting ranches throughout the U.S. in recent years as an addition to deer and elk. Ranch owners deny they're the source of the free-roaming pigs, but Patrick Rusz, director of wildlife programs for the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy, said the animals started showing up in the wild soon after hunting preserves began importing them. Their distribution is clustered near preserves, he added.
"We're not talking about Porky Pig getting loose from the farm," Rusz said. "These are Russian wild boars. Those animals are Houdini-like escape artists, and they breed readily in the wild. We've had domestic pigs for centuries and never had a feral hog problem until the game ranches started bringing these in."
Wild pigs are intelligent and adaptable, eating almost anything and able to live in a wide range of habitats. They dig up cropland and lawns. They damage ecosystems by rooting and digging for food and devouring roots, stems, leaves, fruit, nuts, bark, bird eggs, mice, snakes and fawns. They compete with native wildlife for food such as acorns, carry diseases that can be transferred to wildlife, and destroy wetlands with their wallowing.
Feral swine multiply rapidly, with sows producing several litters a year of four to six piglets, so as with any invasive species, it's crucial to mount aggressive eradication efforts before the population is widely established, Batcheller said. They're also wily and secretive, and become even more so when people try to shoot or trap them.
New York trapped and removed 44 feral swine in Cortland and Onondaga counties in 2008 and 2009, but that effort ended when the state's budget got tight. Now authorities are working to build public awareness of the problem and encourage people to report sightings, as well as urging hunters with small-game licenses to shoot them, any time of year.
"Stopping escapes is the biggest and most important issue we're challenged with," Batcheller said. "It might require legislation so we can shut down the source of these animals before they get on the landscape."
A number of states have banned the captive wild boar hunts as a first step in controlling the wild population, including Michigan, with a population of boars estimated at 2,000 to 7,000. But ranch operators have lobbied the Michigan legislature to overturn the state's ban. While politicians argue, Rusz says the ban has been postponed and won't be fully in place for perhaps four years.
"That's a travesty," he said. "We need an aggressive, common-sense approach.
"Delays are just working in favor of the hogs."
Other northern states concerned with the spread of feral pigs include Maryland, Ohio, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Oregon and Pennsylvania. The animals are well-established in Southern states.
The boars are seen as a scourge for livestock, too. USDA wildlife biologist Justin Gansowski traps feral swine in New York and tests them for diseases that can be transmitted to domestic livestock. Several have tested positive for pseudorabies, a viral disease that's not fatal to humans but can sicken dogs, cats, goats and cattle.
Another problem comes when preserve operators don't take adequate precautions to keep hogs from escaping, said Dave Vanderzee, owner of Easton View Outfitters, a game-hunting and breeding ranch about 20 miles northwest of Albany in Valley Falls. He keeps his Eurasian wild boars behind an 8-foot-tall wire mesh fence encircling about a quarter-acre, with the bottom of the fence buried to prevent burrowing out.
"As an operator, you don't want to lose your livestock," Vanderzee said. They're too valuable."
While deer are hunted from September through January, when they have nice racks of antlers, boar provide an exciting hunt and tasty meat year round, making them popular with hunters and valuable to preserve operators, he said.
"With the cold winters and deep snowpack in the Northeast, I don't think New York is going to have quite the problem people think it will have with feral hogs," Vanderzee said. "But let's not find out. We should nip it in the bud."
Rusz said no fence is foolproof, and the only sensible solution is to ban captive boar breeding and hunting, just as it's illegal to propagate other exotic invasive species.
In Michigan, the Wildlife Conservancy is training volunteers to operate wild hog traps and working with landowners to ferret out and eliminate pockets of wild hogs.
"Biologists will tell you, once they get established, they're going to come to a neighborhood near you," Rusz said. "The hogs will find you. That's the situation we're in."