Michigans feral swine control spurs wild debate

Things are heating up surrounding the Invasive Species Order (ISO) initiated in Michigan to address the exploding feral pig population.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has initiated some elimination protocols that have divided opinions in the state. Specifically, controversial reports such as ones from NaturalNews indicated that the Michigan DNR "conducted two armed raids on pig farmers…one in Kalkaska County at Fife Lake and another in Cheboygan County…with the intent of shooting all the farmers' pigs under a bizarre new ‘Invasive Species Order" that has suddenly declared traditional livestock to be an invasive species."

For clarification, Michigan's Invasive Species Act was approved in December 2010. The ISO related to feral swine when into effect Oct. 8, 2011. The April 1 implementation date was to allow "those in possession of prohibited swine every opportunity to come into compliance with the law," Michigan DNR contends.

"This move was an effort to join other states in the battle against feral swine, as well as to align with the National Invasive Species Laboratory's stance on feral swine," according to the Michigan DNR. "Hunting and breeding facilities in possession of Sus scrofa after April 1, 2012, will face legal action by the state." (More information on the order listing feral swine as an invasive species is available here.)

It is the ISO and the action it presents that has reignited the hot-blooded debate over feral swine. In the 1980s individuals running hunting preserves brought feral swine into the state. Some of the hard-to-contain animals escaped and today, feral swine had been spotted in 72 of Michigan's 83 counties. Experts estimate between 2,000 and 7,000 feral hogs are running loose in Michigan.

"Some of the hunting facilities even regret bringing them in," Sam Hines, executive vice president of the Michigan Pork Producers Association told Pork Network.  "We have to shut off the faucet and get serious about dealing with what's out there." (More on MPPA's position on feral swine is available here.)

But the opposition, which includes the very vocal Ted Nugent, whose son runs a hunting preserve, vehemently disagrees and even charges that the ISO is driven by the government and "Big Ag" to eliminate "small farms" and heritage breeds.    

However, according to Michigan DNR, heritage breeds are not tied to the ISO, unless they have been crossed with feral hogs. The ISO specifically addresses Sus scrofa: "live species, including a hybrid or genetic variation of the species, an egg or offspring of the species or of a hybrid or genetically engineered variant of. . . . Wild boar, wild hog, wild swine, feral pig, feral hog, feral swine, Old world swine, razorback, eurasian wild boar, Russian wild boar (Sus scrofa Linnaeus). This subsection does not and is not intended to affect sus domestica involved in domestic hog production."

A December 2011 declaratory ruling from the DNR defines the physical characteristics used to identify prohibited swine. While heritage swine breeds are uncommon and look a bit different, they are domestic swine. "It just involves feral pigs," Hines emphasizes. "There are several criteria the animal has to meet. We don't yet have a DNA test to designate feral swine, but work is being done."

"In implementing this order for the protection of Michigan's environment and economy, the department has sought to work cooperatively with property owners wherever it can," says Michigan DNR Director Rodney Stokes. "For that reason, enforcement actions thus far have involved voluntary compliance inspections. Where prohibited swine continue to be held, property owners must come into compliance with the law."

In recent days the Michigan DNR filed a civil complaint against Ronald McKendrick and Charlene McKendrick, who own and operate the Renegade Ranch Hunting Preserve in Cheboygan County. Filed in Cheboygan County Circuit Court, the suit asks the court to require the McKendricks to comply with the state's Invasive Species Act and to remove prohibited swine from their property.

On April 3, Michigan DNR visited the Renegade Ranch, as the ranch has possessed feral swine in the past and officials received reports that such animals remained. Ronald McKendrick denied DNR officials access to inspect the facility for prohibited animals.

The complaint filed against the McKendricks seeks court-imposed fines for possession of a prohibited species and the sale or offering for sale of a prohibited species. "The complaint asks the court to compel the McKendricks to depopulate remaining prohibited swine. It also seeks recovery of costs to the state for preventing or minimizing damages to natural resources caused by the prohibited species," according to the Michigan DNR. Civil fines for violating the Invasive Species Act range from $1,000 to $20,000 per violation.

Conversely, four different lawsuits have been filed in Baraga, Gogebic, Marquette and Missaukee Counties to stop the Michigan DNR from implementing the ISO. Among those involved in the suits is Mark Baker, who raises the heritage breed Mangalitsa pigs on his farm www.BakersGreenAcres.com. However, reports are that a crossbreeding program involving feral pigs is what's at issue there.

All in all, reports out of the state illustrate severe and deep lines are drawn on this issue. "It's been a political nightmare," Hines notes. It's worth noting that a variety of groups are supporting the efforts to control the state's feral hog population. These include the Audubon Society and the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy, which is actually helping trap feral hogs. State agriculture groups support the ISO measure as they are concerned about feral hogs spreading diseases beyond those associated with swine. For example, bovine tuberculosis is a problem in Michigan and feral hogs could help spread it further.

In fact, feral swine have been known to carry several diseases and parasites, including hog cholera (classic swine fever), pseudorabies, brucellosis, tuberculosis, salmonellosis, anthrax, ticks, fleas, lice and various worms. Feral swine also carry several diseases that can infect humans including brucellosis, balantidiasis, leptospirosis, salmonellosis, toxoplasmosis, trichinosis, trichostrongylosis, sarcoptic mange, tuberculosis, tularemia, anthrax, rabies and plague.

"This issue has put all of agriculture in jeopardy," Hines says.

More information about Invasive Species Order and the problem of invasive swine in Michigan and across the country can be found here. Information on Michigan DNR, is available here