One of the deadliest enemies in Texas – the wild pig – is sparking fear as threats of African swine fever (ASF) hitting U.S. soil dance across the headlines.
“Wild pigs are agricultural and environmental terrorists number one,” says John Tomecek, assistant professor and wildlife specialist with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. “They destroy the environment and carry diseases that can spread to humans and domestic pig herds.”
There’s no doubt that an outbreak of African swine fever in Texas would be devastating, he says.
“With the densities of wild pigs we have, I expect the virus to travel quickly,” Tomecek says, based on conversations with his colleagues overseas who are dealing with ASF on a daily basis.
“Our problems have different origins,” he says. “Their wild boars are native. In the U.S., most of our wild pigs today were originally brought in by the Spanish and early settlers in the 1500s who free ranged them. When these wild boars mated with domestic pigs, they created the wild pigs we have today. Some people may refer to them as feral, but feral actually means wild pigs that were once domesticated and the wild pigs in Texas haven’t been domesticated for several generations.”
The numbers have grown since then for a lot of reasons. Most recently, it’s because people brought them here for hunting purposes, Tomecek says.
The wild pig population in Texas ranges between 3 to 5 million pigs. Tomecek says that’s a conservative estimate based on a very large and widely distributed wild pig herd that is increasing rapidly throughout the state’s diverse regions.
“If a foreign animal disease, such as ASF, were to enter the U.S. (the U.S. does not have ASF at this time), wild or feral pigs could play a big part in its spread to domestic swine,” says Brandon Gunn, executive vice president of the Texas Pork Producers Association.
In Texas alone, wild pigs can be found in approximately 90% of the counties in the state. If ASF were to become prevalent in the wild pig population, the disease would be extremely difficult to eradicate. Outside of several large pork production farms in the panhandle, there are hundreds of small farms and show pig operations located across the state. That is where substantial risk lies, Gunn says.
A Threat to Agriculture
The impact of the wild pig herd on Texas agriculture is widespread. From a livestock standpoint, wild pigs are a major predator of sheep and goats. But when it comes to the state’s livestock herd, Tomecek worries most about wild pigs spreading disease.
“We know pigs can vector 21 some odd diseases we are aware of – communicable to all livestock animals,” he says. “If I’m a livestock producer, I have to worry about biosecurity all the time. Producers have to vaccinate for diseases they would not normally have to vaccinate for because of this wild pig problem.”
Gunn says there is great potential for introduction of these diseases into herds considering the number of small farms all over the state that don’t have the resources to house their animals inside well-protected, completely enclosed modern barns.
“Research has shown that up to 70% of the feral hog population would have to be removed each year just to prevent population growth,” Gunn says. “As the population continues to grow exponentially, the concerns only increase as well.”
Some farmers have quit producing grains and now produce cotton because wild pigs won’t eat it, Tomecek says. Wild pigs eat seed corn at night, destroying fields. The damages to small grain operations in Texas is so high that many are having a hard time staying in farming because of it.
“From a food security standpoint, that reduces the total number of food America is producing when that land starts being used for non-food production,” he says.
In addition, hay producers fight wild pig damage, too. Tomecek says farmers must think long and hard about what a hay field is truly worth when they have to fight off wild pigs.
“Imagine you are a hay farmer and you cut hay close to the ground, rake it and bale it. If pigs root around, you may not be able to see it, but I can assure you when you drive an implement straight into the ground because you can’t see the divets, it can cause thousands of dollars of damage to implements,” he says.
Being from Texas, Tomecek always considers what could happen if Texas has a dry year.
“Hay may not be there to feed my livestock if we lose acres of hay production to wild pigs,” he says.
An Enemy to the Environment
“We work hard in Texas to manage wildlife – it’s big business for landowners,” Tomecek says. “Wild pigs are the fly in the ointment and get in the way of the good conservation work we do.”
When it comes to the environment, wild pigs take a toll on wildlife, soil, water and plants. The native tree population is declining because of wild pigs damaging trees and destroying saplings.
“They actively predate and kill most of our game and many non-game animals. Many species are becoming endangered because of wild pigs,” he says. “We have a lot of moving water in Texas and the pigs cause problems by turning up creek bottoms, taking up vegetation, causing erosion and sedimentation – basically the pigs are going against everything our producers work hard not to let happen to the land.”
As well, the damage to water is a major problem. Wild pigs harbor E.coli and can infect watersheds.
“We've had areas in our state where the water has been so contaminated with E.coli from pigs that the EPA came in and designated them as impaired watersheds,” Tomecek says. “This means that you can't use the water at all – you can't recreate in it, touch it, drink it, because it's unsafe for humans to be exposed.”
A Detriment to Communities
This challenge to provide safe, clean water because of contaminated watersheds is one more reason why wild pig control is so critical in Texas.
In addition to human health risks, wild pigs can have direct impacts on communities and small towns as more wild pigs enter into urban spaces, impacting turf, homeowner’s lawns, and even golf courses and sports fields.
“It’s very expensive and frustrating to lose money out of our communities because of wild pigs causing damage to property,” he says.
Wild Pig Eradication and Disposal
The most common method of wild pig control in Texas is shooting on the ground with a rifle or shooting from a helicopter, Tomecek says. They also use snares or box-style traps to keep wild pigs out of fields or away from livestock.
Another form of wild pig management is running trained dogs. “We use dog packs to run the pigs,” he says. “That action is a negative stimulus to a pig – it’s not a safe area for pigs when dogs are around. This helps get them out of that area for a while.”
New chemical control techniques are in the works and being proposed for EPA registration. Tomecek says he is hopeful they will approve a poison or toxicin to assist in wild pig control.
When dealing with wild pig carcasses, he says the best management practice is to bury or burn the pig carcasses. However, most people don’t and leave them on the landscape for scavengers to consume.
“If ASF hit, we’d have to educate people on how and why we need to incinerate carcasses safely,” he says. “In Texas, we have a lot of good outreach materials about how to incinerate pigs safely. We are part of the endemic zone of anthrax. It occurs natively in part of our state and the proper method of disposal of anthrax carcasses is incineration. We are used to that, we know how to do that. This is just another disease we have to educate folks about.”
Can Texas control the wild pig population with the resources they have now?
“Absolutely not,” Gunn says. “We need help. We need more resources, access to more effective baits, and we need the government to provide more funding and support in the fight against feral hogs.”
With a number of constituent groups that are passionate about pig hunting in Texas, Tomecek says wild pigs are a challenge that he doesn’t think will go away. One of the biggest misconceptions he deals with is people believing wild pigs are native wildlife in Texas.
“That took me aback at first,” he says. “But consider who you are talking to. Many of these people grew up in urban environments and are passionate about being on the land. And that’s wonderful, but they don’t know what is native or not. Unless we tell them these wild pigs aren’t from here, they won’t know otherwise.”
Texas has one of the unfortunate distinctions of having the worst and oldest wild pig problem in the U.S. In Tomecek’s travels throughout the country and around the world, he urges people to find where their wild pig problem fits into Texas’ timeline.
“Think about what we did and whether it worked or not and try to avoid the problems we have created for ourselves,” he says. “Wild pig outbreaks start small and are pretty limited. This is when you are in the best spot to eradicate the population and get rid of the problem.”
Pigs Don’t Fly: Feral Hog Spread is a Man-Made Mess
Photos provided by Texas Pork Producers Association