David Rainer, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
Despite an increased effort to mitigate the impact of feral hogs in Alabama, the hog population shows no indication of decline.
“Unfortunately, it appears their numbers are continuing to increase,” said Matt Brock, Technical Assistance Wildlife Biologist with the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division. “I’m basing that on talking to people and on reports from areas that haven’t had hogs before.”
Brock is also basing that theory on the number of feral hogs harvested by hunters during the 2019-2020 season. Disturbingly, that total exceeded the number of white-tailed deer taken during the same period. According to the WFF’s annual hunter survey, it was estimated that about 218,000 deer were harvested. The number of feral hogs taken was estimated at about 255,000.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), feral hogs cause more than $1.5 billion in damages to property, agricultural interests (crops and livestock), native wildlife and ecosystems as well as cultural and historic resources.
Brock said as part of the Farm Bill passed by Congress, a large, comprehensive program is underway in Alabama to try to stop the spread of feral hogs, particularly in areas of heavy agriculture. The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is conducting pilot projects in the Alabama Black Belt, the Wiregrass and on the Alabama Gulf Coast.
The Black Belt Project focuses on four watersheds covering almost 85,000 acres in Sumter County. The Wiregrass Project consists of 17 watersheds in Geneva, Houston and Henry counties. The Gulf Coast Project encompasses eight watersheds totaling almost 182,000 acres in Escambia and Baldwin counties.
The projects include purchasing feral hog traps with the latest technology, which allows the traps to be triggered remotely.
“They are trapping on the properties of private landowners with a long history of hog problems around agricultural areas,” Brock said. “They are offering this service to those private landowners in the designated watersheds and have hired several technicians to operate the traps.
“The end goal is not just to remove those hogs but to leave those landowners with the resources and knowledge to continue those trapping efforts once the pilot project ends. That’s a pretty big deal, getting that education out to the landowners to understand how to use the latest technology. I’m very glad to see that.”
One of the problems with feral hogs is the invasive species’ ability to rapidly reproduce. Brock said a typical litter is four to eight piglets, but he has heard of litters as large as 14. Some feral hogs can reach sexual maturity at six months. The gestation period is about 112 to 115 days.
“The sows will generally be close to weaning their litter before being bred again,” he said. “In theory, sows can have three litters every 14 months. Most of the time, they have one or two litters a year. Another thing is the piglets have a very high survival rate. They have very few predators because momma can be pretty aggressive toward anything that messes with her little ones.”
Brock said the bulk of today’s feral swine population in Alabama originated from hogs brought to America in the Mobile area by the Spanish in the early 1500s. He said he has seen some indication that some areas have hybrid stock that includes Eurasian wild boar characteristics.
“That area around Mobile is one of the first places in the United States to have hogs,” he said.
“It’s ironic to me that those hogs pretty well stayed in that drainage for about 400 years until we had gas-powered vehicles,” Brock noted, referencing the fact that the spread of feral hogs was very limited until humans started to transport the swine to other areas. Currently, feral hogs have been reported in all of Alabama’s 67 counties.
“A lot of their movement in the past 30 to 50 years has been in the back of a livestock trailer and then released,” Brock said of a practice that has been outlawed in the state.
“Now, once a hog becomes a person’s possession by either capturing or hunting, it cannot be released alive,” he said. “It must be killed on-site.”
Brock said before the COVID-19 restrictions, WFF partnered with other agencies to actively educate the public on the feral swine problem.
“We had landowner workshops planned that we had to cancel,” he said. “We are going to try to get those rolling again as soon as possible. I think the workshops go a long way in providing knowledge and resources landowners need to take care of some of these hog problems.”
Brock said the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) has purchased several remote-activated traps that have been deployed on public lands – wildlife management areas (WMAs) and special opportunity areas (SOAs) with feral hog populations.
“Part of the management on those WMAs and SOAs with hog problems is to try to efficiently remove as many of those animals as quickly as possible,” he said. “This trap design can be extremely effective in accomplishing this.”
For the private landowners with hog problems, Brock said the NRSC also has a program that will help reimburse the cost of equipment and resources to deal with the hogs under certain conditions.
“If three landowners in close proximity sign up, the NRSC has some cost-share programs for those landowners to collectively purchase a trap,” he said. “The landowners have to document the hog damage before implementation of the program. Then after the trapping efforts, the landowners are reimbursed for a significant portion of the equipment.”
For more information regarding this program, contact your local NRCS office.
As shown by the harvest numbers, hunters obviously remove quite a few hogs annually from the landscape, but hunting has proven to be ineffective at reducing total numbers of hogs.
“The most efficient method at reducing the population in a certain area is to remove entire sounders (family group),” Brock said. “People who are using this remote-activated design trap are seeing effective population control as a result of whole sounder removal. That is the best method available.”
It’s also important when trapping to make sure the entire sounder is inside the enclosure when the trap is triggered.
“Hogs are highly territorial,” Brock said. “Older sows develop home ranges where they forage and take their young. If you can remove a group from one area and start going along the landscape, removing groups as you come to them, you are creating a void that no other hogs are in currently. Some people trap in a shotgun approach, but if you move along the landscape in a strategic fashion, you can do real well in removing sounders entirely. That is what we teach at the workshops.”
Brock said modern technology allows trappers to be much more efficient at removing sounders.
“Monitoring with cameras and live-stream video has completely changed the game,” he said. “I can’t stress enough the importance of monitoring to know what you’ve got. If you’ve got 100 hogs on the landscape and you catch 35 of them, you think you’ve done a really good job. But if you’re not monitoring them with cameras, you wouldn’t know you left 65 out there. Not only that, you also educated them.
“Cameras, especially with live-streaming, have really changed the game. When hogs come to the feed, they’re constantly moving, with some running others in and out of the trap. It’s a social hierarchy thing. With just still shots, some hogs may be outside the trap when you trigger it. With live-stream, you only have a one- to two-second delay when you drop the trap. You actually get to see what’s going on at the time you drop.”
For those who prefer to leave the hog removal to someone else, WFF has a list of nuisance trappers at www.outdooralabama.com.
For those who just need information on trapping hogs, WFF has a technical assistance biologist in each district who can provide assistance by assessing the hog damage to the property and recommending a trapping program.
Brock said landowners who provide the panels to build an enclosure can purchase a remotely activated gate for about $2,000. For a complete trapping unit, expect an outlay of between $5,000 and $10,000.
Hiring a professional feral swine trapper will run between $25,000 and $40,000 annually. That may seem like a lot, but Brock says you must keep costs in perspective.
“I had a farmer tell me, he estimated the hog damage in 2019 at $140,000,” Brock said. “He looked at what it was going to cost to hire someone to trap. It was $25,000 to $28,000. To him, that was a minor expense compared to that $140,000 loss.”