An old friend from Texas was visiting me last week. As we sat on the deck of a Gateway Clipper riverboat and toured the bridges and riversides of Pittsburgh, we talked about old times and old friends and also about similarities and differences between Pennsylvania and Texas. One question he asked me was if Pennsylvania has any wild pigs running around in its forests? I told him about the pig Deborah and I met on our Baker Trail hike in 2010 (pictured to the left!). He was a domesticated pig (someone’s pet, I assumed from his demeanor), but he was a three-hundred pounds (estimated) representative of the Suidae and could have been the starting stock for a local population of wild pigs!
You can say it so many different ways: feral pigs, wild boars, feral hogs, wild swine! They are all one in the same animal: an incredibly destructive, rapidly reproducing hybrid pig that is a mix of domesticated pigs that have escaped from their farm-life captivities and an array of exotic, wild pig subspecies of Sus scrofa, including the Russian wild boar, the European wild boar, and the Asian wild boar, that have escaped primarily from private hunting preserves in which they had been kept and bred. Thirty-five states have feral pig populations and with the pigs’ steady territorial expansion and growth in numbers, it is expected that all fifty states will have wild swine in the next thirty to fifty years!
It is estimated that there are six million wild/feral pigs running loose in the United States and that nearly half of them live in Texas! Hence the appropriateness of my friend’s question. Texas is a big place (as Texans love to point out!) but two and a half million pigs (the estimated state population) are A LOT of pigs! These Texas pigs (sometimes called “razorbacks” just to add another noun to the mix!) are thought to date back to swine released by the original Spanish explorers of Texas (back in the mid 1500’s). Over the years, though, many escaped domesticated pigs and exotic boars have added to the vigor and genetic diversity of the Texas swine population.
In Pennsylvania, the feral hog numbers are much more modest: about three thousand pigs. There are three counties in Pennsylvania where feral pigs are known to be reproducing: Bedford and Fulton in the southcentral part of the state (right on the Maryland border) and Bradford up in the northeast (on the New York border), but wild pigs have been sighted throughout the state.
So, what do these feral pigs do that is so bad for the environment? First, by their almost continuous rooting and digging behaviors they destabilize soil and increase soil erosion. They also eat many wild plants and destroy the roots of even more plant species. They eat ground nesting birds, they kill livestock (especially lambs, calves, and kid goats) and they even kill pets that happen to wander into pig-infested woods. They also eat huge quantities of “mast” (acorns, hickory nuts, etc.) upon which a wide variety of native, wild animal species rely for food. Feral pigs also carry a number of viral and bacterial pathogens that can afflict both wild and domestic animals and also humans. They also carry a diverse load of parasites that can be spread to both other animals and also to people. Feral pigs have no natural predators in our ecosystems and are capable of reproducing even before they are a year old. They can have up to two litters of usually five to six (but sometimes up to twelve) piglets every year! Mature males can weigh up to four hundred pounds, and females with litters are savagely aggressive against anything they perceive as possibly harmful to their offspring.
Pennsylvania recently transferred jurisdiction of the state’s feral pig populations from the State Department of Agriculture to the Pennsylvania Game Commission. The Game Commission promptly established an open hunting season for these animals. A hunter may shoot as many pigs as they can, 365 days a year. Many guidelines concerning the safety of the hunters’ handling of the pig carcasses have also been established to try to limit the spread of the swine pathogens and parasites to humans.
In Texas, wild pigs are a much bigger and much more complex problem. On one hand, the destruction they reek in the state’s natural and agricultural ecosystems is prodigious. Cost impacts of feral pigs in Texas alone has been estimated to be fifty-two million dollars a year (nationwide the estimated cost of feral pigs (both for their impacts and also for the costs to finance their removal) is 1.5 billion dollars a year!). On the other hand, though, in spite of these staggering impact costs, feral pigs are a very popular species for Texas hunters! Earlier this year the Texas State Agriculture Commissioner issued an emergency declaration to allow the use of bait laced with a coumadin-based poison to kill the feral hogs of Texas. Lawsuits against this declaration have been filed by the unlikely alliance of the Environmental Defense Fund (who are worried about the environmental impacts of loosing this poison out in the ecosystem) and the Texas Hog Hunters Association (who don’t want poisoned pigs!). It turns out that feral hogs are a big business in Texas! Slaughterhouses pay between $30 and $180 for a wild pig carcass. Less desirable parts of the pigs are sold to pet food companies while choicer parts of the hogs are sold to high-end restaurants as organic, range fed pork! An article about this plan to poison the wild boars of Texas (New York Times, April 29, 2017) mentioned a company near Waco, Texas called “Wild Boar Meats” that purchased from hunters and processed 5000 feral pigs a month! A wild pig poisoning program would, of course, destroy this wild pork industry.
So, floating down the Monongahela River with an old friend turned to a discussion about wild pigs and range-fed pork. It all seems normal, to me.