Saturday, October 10, 2009
The real menace to society... “Pigpeii”
Remember the angst about Y2K and the “Killer Bees?” Now the Media is finally admitting that “Global Warming” is sort of cooling. And then recently the Swine Flu scare, then the Swine Flu adjusted prognosis, and lastly the Swine Flu revival, at a school near you. Health authorities even changed the name of the virus to help de-stigmatize our swine friends. So the public, with lots of help is constantly confused, distracted and alarmed by the wrong things. Those images of the dead and dying in Mexico have proven to be stronger than scientific terminology, affirming the axiom that it is the first impression that matters. But please, don’t completely retire your fear of swine. Public enemy number one may not be Swine Flu, or swine in general. But there is great justification in focusing your attention for just a few moments on a true public health and safety threat; the Texas feral hog population. It is a volcano about to erupt. Just call it “Pigpeii.”
Feral hogs, wild, unmanaged swine that run with abandon in the Texas river bottoms, have mushroomed into a massive, intimidating public nuisance. And not without considerable resistance. Unencumbered with regulated hunting seasons, bag limits, or guilt from wanton slaughter, professional State hunters massacre them by the gross from helicopters, ranchers and farmers shoot them with eager scorn, weekend warriors chase them down on four-wheelers, and good old boys in every county build super-traps in their garages to catch this wily enemy. So far the feral hog population has only thrived with all of this attention. They are expected by many to grow in the next few years from an estimated two million to some number that more resembles the national debt. Kirby Brown, executive vice president of the Texas Wildlife Association, calls it an “absolute explosion." Sightings of swine marauders and damage claims by feral hog victims in most Texas counties have skyrocketed. The average annual destruction estimate by each landowner is over four thousand dollars. So every year, an estimated $50 million in hog damages are claimed by Texans. And that’s not hogwash.
Meanwhile the wild hogs plow on, ravaging greener pastures, leaving beautiful meadows churned as if turned by a Massey-Ferguson cultivator. To come upon where they have recently dined looks like a great beast has had a temper tantrum and attacked the earth with all his fury. A pleasant river- bottom alcove can be turned into an ugly mess in minutes, with cow-crippling holes and large tree roots exposed, all fleeced with freshly fluffed sand. Voracious and lean and very smart, these swine barely resemble their domestic cousins. Except in one respect; feral hogs eat anything, the corn the farmer has raised to feed his cattle, wild onions, tasty roots and flower gardens, all kinds of snakes, the newborn fawn the doe has left hidden in the field, the eggs laid by quail and other prairie birds, or the rotting cow lying dead from some unknown disease in the back forty. I have seen them strip a dead yearling calf to bleached-bones overnight. To look upon such complete carnivorous destruction is unsettling, like a bad monster movie, especially when you think about what the State is doing about it. Which is less than they have done about Swine Flu or Killer Bees.
Even more discouraging, is the way the State wildlife experts frame the situation. ABC News reported three years ago as Billy Higginbotham, whose job it is to coordinate Texas A&M research with surrounding landowners through the Texas Extension Cooperative, explained almost stoically: "We are not going to eradicate them; what our hope is that we can reduce their population to reduce damage." In other words, our best and most informed minds see sparse relief and no foreseeable victory in this battle. Higginbotham and others admit that they are almost overwhelmed, with little imperative data to build a strategy on. Landowners in Texas are facing a real problem that has unknown proportions, is growing very fast at an unknown rate, and can only be arrested by some unknown solution. And authorities only offer that we just learn to live with these invaders. These words, and this kind of fatalism is downright un-Texan and is as welcome to Texas landowners as those first gassy belches of a volcano.
And let us not forget the potential health hazards these dastardly denizens of the deep woods bring to the picnic. Besides the fact that if so inclined, they are apt to attack you with deadly force. They travel in packs, surround and knock down their prey like rhinos, and consume them like piranhas. Wild hogs have been known to aggressively injure and even to kill humans. Just like domestic hogs, they can carry Pseudorabies and Trichinosis. Authorities cringe when they even consider a latent threat, if the feral hogs ever begin to spread Cholera. But more likely a person will get Brucellosis from the harvesting and processing of their carcasses, as at least 10% of them carry the disease. Yes, they are good eating, especially when young, but not without some risk. Hunters are advised to cook the meat very thoroughly. But it is just a matter of time, as tourists and careless weekenders fill the wild lands of Texas every autumn, and the wild hogs expand into more new territories, that somebody will leave a small child unattended… and never see them again.
And that may have to happen before authorities take any real, conclusive action. The problem as usual is not the problem, but its political appeal. Feral hog infestation is not a popular cause, thus not deemed worth the money or effort needed to warn the public, much less eradicate the pesky pork predators. If Highway 6 is any example, only deaths help to pep up the popularity of what otherwise seem like unfeasible precautions and solutions. I know several hog hunters and trappers that are forecasting an historic, unstoppable statewide infestation in the coming years, but no one seems to care. And still they come.
One of these hunters, a master sharpshooter, hunts them at night for sport, and I have looked through his night-vision telescope. Let’s pray it is not a view into our future. It is the reality version of Where the Wild Things Are. At night the Brazos bottom comes alive like the African Savannah. Deer, coyotes, rabbits, foxes, bobcats, infinite vermin, and even some panthers show up from time to time. Most of these animals are nocturnal, and seldom seen. But this Brazos Serenghetti is a shooting gallery of feral hogs. The hogs forage and scamper by regularly, a new batch of raiders from across the river, every night. They are guerilla insurgents, and you are their oyster. My sharpshooting friend used to try to find needy pig meat lovers, but wild pork has become so common that he cannot give it away. The resilient hogs are just like ants. If you kill one, a hundred come to his funeral. Sometimes their carcasses dot the cornfields like a war zone. The buzzards are as fat as chickens… Still they come.
Another friend of mine hunts them the old fashioned way, with dogs. He heads for the bottoms every chance he gets with his wonderful Catahoulas, known by some as “leopard dogs.” Anciently bred for panther hunting by Native Americans in the Louisiana swamps, they are a little wild themselves, can run all day, and have no fear. They live to hunt. And some of them die in the process. The hog dog is nothing if not a savage, winner-take all fighter. Their owner rarely carries a gun though. Guns can attract testy landowners and game wardens. If the dogs need help, he has a massive Bowie knife to end each chase. But a hunter like this can only kill a hundred hogs a year, at best, a tiny drop in the bucket.
This kind of unlegislated Bowie knife thrill-hunting has become a popular but gruesome sport on exotic hunting leases, where adventuresome hunters pay embarrassing amounts to hunt down, tackle and cut the throat of the beast. With no season or limit, and an inexhaustible prey, it is the perfect game for the bloodthirsty. But many landowners would admit that their income from hog hunting is not worth the damage done. And it is an insignificant threat to the feral hog population, since it is aimed primarily at trophy sized males. And ironically a public nuisance becomes a valuable revenue source, thus confusing or undermining goals of extermination.
Still another friend has tried a more comprehensive approach. He builds, sells and uses hog traps. He then markets the hogs to pork exporters. He and others like him have built perhaps a hundred traps or more, trying to exhaust the local feral hog population. Texas hunters and trappers like him have found an endless mother lode of meat, hides and fertilizer. The feral hog population is soon to become recognized and utilized as a natural resource.
Here are the dynamics that excite him and so many others. Feral hogs breed just like rabbits, and have 2.5 litters a year. Each litter consists of four to twelve piglets. The mortality rate is low compared to other species. In two years, with 50% mortality, one sow can produce over 2,500 hogs, approximately half of which will be female, and in just four years, over 3,000,000, who in just a couple more years can produce tens of millions of feral hogs. All from one old sow that escapes from some poor guys trap. Since only one hog could hypothetically replenish the assumed population now existing in less than five years, it seems improbable that the State estimates are remotely accurate. The only thing keeping the feral hog population within a manageable number must be the various unorganized hunting and trapping efforts, which we know are slowly losing the war. The hogs are not growing unchecked. But they are steadily growing in spite of the unorganized war on them in our wild lands. Then in a few years, at some pivotal point, the insufficient feral hog harvest will become insignificant, as the feral hog population reaches a critical mass, and suddenly we will all have wild hogs in our backyards.
In the process of studying this public enemy I have learned another rather unsettling fact. “Authorities” do not have a clue about actual wildlife populations or the severity of their disease infestation. It has long been assumed that State biologists estimate animal populations by counting heads along roads inside controlled populations, and have a magic formula by which they create a statewide extrapolation, what is known as a “SWAG”: Scientific Wild Ass Guess. Since feral hogs are very difficult if not impossible to count, the State estimates hog populations by equivocating, assuming that they are somewhat the same as deer populations. For argument’s sake, that puts the hog population in Texas at around 2 million. For now. That means that so far, every two years, predation and hunting and trapping and bad luck cause the wild hogs to pretty much die back and simultaneously replace themselves. If that were true, it would be an amazing coincidence. Even so, this SWAG will not stand for long. Deer have an average of less than one offspring per year. They are hunted sporadically, and their diet and range habits are different. It’s a useless apple and orange comparison. Feral hogs are much more flexible and fertile and prolific than White tailed deer. The feral hog population could not stay in some kind of mystical neck and neck population race with deer indefinitely. Yet this is the expert’s best “SWAG.” It may be time for Texans to make a SWAG themselves.
Texans can safely guess that State authorities have done effectively little, knowing all the while about the Tsunami of wild, rapacious swine already on the fringes of our population centers, carrying untold disease and destruction. The State has most probably wildly underestimated the feral hog population. Texans can guess someone will have to die first before they aim any of our tax dollars at a solution. And pathetically, even the legendary Texas Aggies do not offer one, at any price. When the inevitable happens, we can already see the TEC, Texas Parks & Wildlife or the Center for Disease Control shrugging and pointing at some other agency. And Texas is ten years behind in addressing this public health threat.
What has made this problem so hard to wrap governmental minds around is there is no agency specifically in charge of monitoring or reducing such animal populations,in other words, Pest Control, and no leaders who perceive a need for one. State agencies sometimes fail to enthusiastically pool their resources, and AgriLife, Texas Parks & Wildlife, and others have failed to take the lead, presumably because of bigger priorities or lack of funding. What is needed is some creative cooperation between the various organizations, and perhaps some leverage applied from our elected representatives.
These feral hogs are public enemy number one, ask any rancher or farmer. They do not have to concoct a SWAG. They are in a range war with a cunning foe, a land shark adapted to our climate and terrain, that breeds relentlessly. Texas landowners claim over 50 Million dollars a year in damage by feral hogs to their property. There is precious little organized to keep the feral hog population from quadrupling in the coming years, and quadrupling the damages they cause with them.
Recently ranchers in our County have noticed an exciting increase in other wildlife populations. Predators of all kinds seem to be doing very well these days. Coyotes used to have the run of Texas prairies, but now share them with a resurgence of Red Wolves, Foxes, Bobcats, Mountain Lions and even Jaguars. As an unknown number of feral hogs has exploded, so have the animals that might dine on them. Wildlife managers will have an even more delicate problem on their hands, if and when they ever eradicate the present menace of wild pigs. These majestic predators re-establishing themselves in old territories will be an historic and welcome homecoming to wildlife lovers, just as the return of the American Bald Eagle. But as the feral hogs are somehow controlled, these predators will become the Texas livestock chain massacre. Only swift action can curtail this inevitable return of the food chain, as nature tries to balance this unnatural threat, and Texans face an even more difficult foe, Liberal minded animal rights activists, who think landowners have no rights when it comes to the life cycle of a smelt.
The recent swine flu scare was a godsend of sorts, and it should have awakened Texas wildlife management authorities to the potential public danger of feral hogs. You might want to contact someone in government you know, who might listen, and help our State avoid a needless disaster, one we someday will call Pigpeii, with widespread destruction the likes of Pompeii, the Roman village lost under nature’s fury, another time when people ignored the obvious and lived like there was no tomorrow.