Tuesday, June 10, 2008

State Targets Growing Feral Swine Population

This story is of particular interest to me, as my father, son and I discussed planning a "pig hunt" in South Carolina next year. Maybe we can hone our swine tracking skills right here in PA before we get crackin' in the Carolinas.

By Celanie Polanick
Sunday, June 8, 2008

When feral pigs are first born, they may seem cute and harmless -- soft little creatures about the size of a small loaf of banana bread.

But by the time they're full grown, they can reach the size of a bathtub and weigh up to several hundred pounds, and instead of being cute, they're aggressive, destructive and predatory, said Randy Pilarcik, a game officer for Southern Butler County with the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

Feral swine are wild pigs. Many of them aren't native to Pennsylvania, and can destroy farmland, prey on small animals and spread disease among livestock.

While the southern half of the country battles a more severe infestation with feral swine, Pennsylvania's game authorities are waging a smaller war.

Along with coyotes and other invasive species, feral pigs are a drain on their habitats and a nuisance to farmers.

Thanks to a state game commission decree last month, they are a delicious new target for hunters in 64 out of 67 counties. (Click on link to read the rest)

While releasing any species of pig into the wild is already against state law, the game commission's recent decree makes it legal for any licensed hunter in those counties to take unlimited wild pigs, all year long, said Jerry Feaser, a spokesman for the state game commission.

"The effort here is eradication," Feaser said. "These feral swine do not belong in Pennsylvania's wilds."

Butler's pig population

Butler County is one of only three in the state -- along with Bedford and Cambria -- where hunters are not supposed to shoot the beasts while state-sanctioned trapping is going on.

Trapping is the most effective way to reduce targeted feral swine populations, because it keeps them from spreading to new areas, said the state game commission's executive director, Carl G. Roe, in the text of the state decree.

Trapping -- for permitted trappers working through the U.S. and Pennsylvania departments of Agriculture -- will occur from the close of the flintlock muzzleloading season in mid-January to the beginning of spring gobbler season, and from the end of spring gobbler season until the beginning of archery deer season.

If funding for the trapping initiatives falls through, state game officials may consider lifting protection in the remaining three counties too, Roe said.

However, for now, Butler County's feral pig population is only about a dozen, and they're concentrated in the northern end of the county, Pilarcik said.

Local farmers say they're plagued more by coyotes and ground-hogs.

Harold Foertsch, who owns a farm in Jefferson Township, said his 350 acres of soybeans attract ground-hogs, but he hasn't had any problems with feral swine.

But if he or any other Butler County farmers did see one, they wouldn't have to call a licensed trapper unless it was trapping season -- "incidental taking" of feral swine is permitted outside of trapping seasons in those counties.

Any person who kills a feral swine must report it to their Game Commission Region Office within 24 hours.

While the swine may be wild and full of germs, they are safe to eat if proper hunting hygiene practices are followed, and swine meat is popular with hunters, Feaser said.

"They've killed them, had them butchered and reported back to us that they're actually very good," he said.

A European meal

Feral pigs are a free meal many years in the making.

Genetically, they hail from Eastern Europe -- many of them were Russian boars, or razorbacks, who found their way to the states as the chattel of hunting enthusiasts.

"Many of the species that are feral swine in Pennsylvania are not from long-term bred livestock, they're from Eurasian wild boar stock, those that were brought over for hunting preserves," Feaser said. "That's the primary source of feral swine in the wild."

Pennsylvania's infestation with the animals is fairly recent. Their populations have been growing over the past few decades, when increasing numbers of the European hybrids were joined by other pigs who "got out through the fence, or under the fence, but were never attempted to be retrieved," Feaser said.

Some of those were farm pigs, and, more recently, pets -- but any pig that wanders into the wild becomes feral before long.

Hog wild (or not)

Brandon Turano, 21, of Lower Burrell was driving home with family on Garvers Ferry Road in Allegheny Township when he spotted a round, dark, four-legged animal sauntering along the side of the road.

The creature was "kind of bald-ish," with black hair, and stood about two feet tall, he said.

"It didn't seem like a wild boar," Turano said. "It seemed domestic. It was real slow, enjoying itself, walking real calm. My sister was freaking out," Turano said. "She said, 'Should we call 911?' I was like, 'I don't know if it's that kind of emergency.'"

In the end, they did call police to come bring home the bacon -- which turned out to be someone's pet, an Allegheny Township police dispatcher said.

But after a few weeks longer in the wild, it would have become something else entirely.

From pink to predatory

Within as few as 30 days, domesticated pet pigs -- or those of the farmyard variety -- can turn feral, which leads to some interesting changes, Feaser said.

Their hair becomes darker and coarser; their tusks, often filed down on the farm, begin to grow out; they begin to forage and attack small animals, "even so much as fawns," Feaser said. "They will out-compete wildlife for available food sources, they are able and capable of disrupting ground-nesting birds and eating their eggs"

They love to dig under the ground for tubers and the roots of vegetables, tearing up farmers' fields and ripping whole corn stalks out of the ground, said Mark O'Neill, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau.

"These animals can be very destructive," O'Neill said. "In some areas, we have heard that they are moving in packs and they can rip up and destroy a good patch of farm land in a very short amount of time."

If they come in contact with livestock, they also can spread diseases and parasites including brucellosis, trichinosis and pseudorabies to farmers' pigs and pose a health risk to other species, he said.

That's why the campaign to get rid of them is a good idea -- and why, in most of the state, there's no limits to the hunting season, O'Neill said.

"When you see a feral swine on your farm, ripping apart your crops, you can go out and shoot him."

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