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Episode Transcript: Hogs Gone Wild

(HOG SOUNDS)

BRIAN BROWNING: Hogs are noisy animals, you'll hear them well before you see them. They'll grunt and squeal and, and carry on. They're pretty rough with each other. And when there's a gang of them, they'll be kind of knocking each other around, you’ll hear ‘em squealing and they'll squeal pretty loud.

CORY VAILLANCOURT: They can vary, they can look like anything from almost a domestic pig with a little extra hair, to fully black with these luxurious manes, and so you never really know what you're going to get.

WYATT WALTON: We have a landowner that calls us in a panic, doesn't know what they're gonna do. You know, we've had some landowners have a dog get killed or they've just lost, you know, 60% of their crop. Well, when we come in there and we catch a whole big old bunch of hogs, I mean, it's immediate satisfaction.

VAILLANCOURT: Areas I've seen in South Georgia where they're prolific, they end up digging kind of holes the size of like a record album in the ground, and then cattle will come and turn their ankles on that or break a leg and then you've got, you know, a $2,000 animal that's now lame.

WALTON: They're big, they’re bad. You know, 300-pound boar that's got five inches of teeth hanging out his mouth scares the heck out of me, and I deal with them every day.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LAURA PELLICER, HOST: Feral swine. Wild hogs. Razorbacks. Russian boar. There are a lot of words for the pigs wreaking havoc across the South. Brian Browning, Wyatt Walton and Cory Vaillancourt know that all too well. From the lean mountain swine in Western North Carolina to the hogzillas of Texas, they are all sus scrofa, the same species as the pigs you might find on a farm or a butcher block.

A well-fed feral hog can weigh up to 300 pounds. And some as large as 800 pounds have been reported in the South. With their thick hides, hairy bristles and long sharp tusks, they often look more like fairy tale monsters than farmyard favorites.

(THEME MUSIC)

ELIZABETH FRIEND, HOST: When they’re out in the wild, these creatures do incredible amounts of damage, an estimated $2.5 billion dollars worth each year throughout the U.S.

PELLICER: They gouge deep holes in the soil as they root around.

FRIEND: They’ll devour almost any commercial crop they can find.

PELLICER: They compete with native wildlife for food.

FRIEND: They eat native wildlife as food.

PELLICER: They spread disease, contaminate local water sources, and occasionally attack humans.

FRIEND: Wild hogs are an environmental and economic disaster anywhere they take up residence. And they’re popping up all across the country.

PELLICER: This is CREEP, stories about creatures invading our space and changing the world around us.

I’m Laura Pellicer.

FRIEND: And I’m Elizabeth Friend.

BROWNING: This past summer, in my guestimation, I would guess that the hogs destroyed at least 25% of the corn before it was even able to be harvested.

FRIEND: Brian Browning lives in Macon County, in the mountains of Western North Carolina. His family owns about 300 acres of land, and rents some of their acreage to local farmers to grow corn. Hogs aren’t picky about what they eat, but they do seem to love corn. And what they don’t eat, they trample.

BROWNING: You can try to step ‘em and you can hunt ‘em but they'll get in the corn and you really can't you can't see them. You can't sneak up on them. You can't, you know, and dogs are pretty ineffective in the corn too, cause they'll just run circles in that corn. But yeah, so a lot of destruction last year, really a hit for the farmer that had all that planted. I think farmers expect somewhat of a loss. But they don't expect that.

FRIEND: Brian has been hunting feral hogs since he was a teenager. He likes the sport of it, and the flavor. But in the past decade, he’s seen the number of feral swine and the damage they do increase. One of their signature moves is rooting — planting their snouts in the soil and digging around for bugs, worms, tubers, roots — anything that could possibly be food. You might not catch the hogs in action, but you can always tell where they’ve been.

BROWNING: What it will look like is someone has rototilled their garden, basically. If you get a large group, they can tear up a tremendous amount of area in just one day or one evening. In a week's time, if they find something, they can destroy a 10 or 15-acre hayfield. Almost to a point where it’s not even reasonable to cut the hay off of it, if it is bad enough.

FRIEND: When feral hogs cause problems in Macon County, Mike Bell is the guy his neighbors call for help.

Mike talked with Western North Carolina journalist Lilly Knoepp at his family farm in the Coweeta Valley.

MIKE BELL: It's really changed in the last 10 years far as hogs being in places they haven't been, down in the communities more and stuff, but it probably started changing 15 to 20 years ago. You know, you began to hear about hogs and see sign of them and it just seemed like as far as the encroachment of them it just come right on down. And it's, like I said, there's not many places that I can't think of here in the county that doesn't have hogs.

LILLY KNOEPP: How many hogs do you think you kill in a year or catch in a year?

BELL: I bet we kill 25 to 40 head of hogs a year, and it don't seem like that affects the population of ‘em one bit. I mean, you know, you have the same turnover the very next year.

FRIEND: Mike is right. Kill 40 hogs, you might just see another 30 to 50 pop up. For decades, humans have been shooting, trapping, and often eating feral hogs — and nothing seems to be bringing down their population. In fact, they’ve spread to at least 38 states in the U.S. So what is it about these creatures that makes them so resilient? And what’s the answer to controlling their spread?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PELLICER: Sampson County, North Carolina is about a 6 drive hour straight east from Macon County, at the opposite end of the state. Here, where agriculture is the number one industry, the hogs have really gotten out of hand.

John Hendrix is one of the local farmers. He’s seen the swine damage on his land, and he wants other farmers to really understand what’s at stake.

JOHN HENDRIX: I don’t think we can trap ‘em all. I don’t think we can shoot ‘em all, we can't shoot ‘em all from a helicopter. I just talked to a, one of the USDA people, he's a hog killer, he’s going to go down and get his equipment. He’ll spend the night laying in the cornrow tonight shooting the hogs if they come out of the woods and come into the fields.

PELLICER: Pigs are big in Sampson County. There are more domestic swine than people, and the county ranks second in the nation for pork production. It’s nestled in the inner coastal plain of Eastern North Carolina. And the region’s rich soil and flat landscape make it some of the best farmland in the state. And Sampson County is also the testing ground for a new pilot project to try to figure out how to eradicate feral hogs across the state and beyond. That’s why John Hendrix and others are here.

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE: So at this time if you will let’s move out these doors and let’s go backside…

PELLICER: On a recent summer evening, I joined about 100 or so farmers and landowners as they shuffled into the Sampson County Livestock Arena, to find out more about the hairy beasts that are tearing up crop rows and evading their traps and rifles.

FALYN OWENS: Like I said, this is gonna be quick and dirty. Alright, start out with some background…

PELLICER: Falyn Owens is an Extension Wildlife Biologist for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. She tells farmers how this whole problem got started.

OWENS: The Spanish explorers came to the new world and they found this wonderful land and they said, ‘Alright, we need to figure out what we can eat here. And they actually released domestic swine on the landscape so they would have a reliable source of meat…’

PELLICER: This is where our love for glistening strips of bacon, juicy pulled pork, stacks of sauce-glazed ribs, and slabs of grilled chops all begins.

Falyn and I caught up on Zoom. She told me that in the 1900s hunters looking for a new thrill imported Eurasian Wild Boar.

OWENS: ...and these are the heritage hogs that have the longer hair and they're less domesticated. And they were brought in and put into these big fenced pens so that hunters could harvest them and the fences didn't work.

PELLICER: A lesson from history — the fences or cages that we use to contain wild hogs often don’t work. So some hogs got loose, others were released into the wild on purpose. And these interbred with the feral pig population, creating hybrid hogs. The more than 6 million feral swine thriving across the U.S today are various combinations of those pigs.

OWENS: They're prolific breeders. You know, domestic livestock have been bred over the years to be able to produce pigs as rapidly as possible.

PELLICER: Over generations we bred domestic pigs to get fat and have a lot of babies. And once they escape into the wild, they can weaponize those traits against us. Wildlife officials tracking the exponential growth of their populations have labeled it a feral swine bomb.

OWENS: A sow can be reproductively mature in as little as three months. A three month old sow can be capable of reproducing. And they can have multiple litters per year, and we're talking about potentially, you know, like a dozen piglets or more per litter, so they can multiply very rapidly.

PELLICER: Within months, a domestic pig that’s released into the wild can become well adapted to life outside a pen. Within a few generations, they can transform — changing shape and showing off their impressive, sharp tusks. Essentially developing the tools to thrive in their new habitat. On top of that, natural predators have little impact on their populations. And meanwhile, the hogs eat everything.

OWENS: They can pretty much survive on anything that has calories in it, which means that they're just as happy rooting around in the dirt for worms and bugs and beetle larvae as they are to eat fallen fruit on the ground or road kills or other carcasses. If they come across a snake or a lizard or a mouse, they are definitely going to take advantage of that and grab it and eat it. And they will even eat deer fawns because very young fawns don't run, they just kind of hunker down and hope not to be seen. So they're easy prey for feral swine. They'll eat eggs. So ground-nesting birds, like turkeys can definitely lose their clutches to feral swine, really, anything. Anything that is sort of fruit or meat or protein-based is what feral swine are going to take advantage of. And of course, that includes crops too. (LAUGHTER)

PELLICER: Rapacious eaters. Relentless breeders. And they’re intelligent.

OWENS: Because they're so smart, if you get one animal that escapes from a hunter or from a trap, it's never going to come anywhere near a hunter or trap ever again.

PELLICER: This is the problem facing farmers or anyone who wants to be rid of feral hogs. Hunting or trapping just a few will make no dent in their population, and will probably just make the rest harder to catch.

Instead, wildlife officials say large corral traps that can be triggered remotely are the best way to capture large groups of feral swine, called sounders. Corey Sims, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, showed off these traps to the farmers gathered at the Feral Swine Town Hall in Sampson County.

COREY SIMS: As technology has changed, so has the traps. I started catching pigs in 2008, back in Texas, we had square traps, things have evolved. The nice thing about these traps, they are operated by your cell phone. If you don’t have a cell phone, you have a handy dandy button here. They are nice, they are convenient and you can sit at your house on your couch and you can catch pigs while watching TV. …up and running. We are good to go. This trap is fully functional as we speak. Let's pretend you got pigs in the trap. He pops that live video up.

(METALLIC BANG) He pushes that button. We just caught the pigs. But you notice simultaneously these gates dropped. That is wonderful. That is convenient. It's not having to go in here and manually push a button, he just did it from a cell phone on his couch.

PELLICER: There is a bigger strategy. In 2019 the USDA announced it would be allocating $75 million to fund a national initiative to limit their spread. And another key goal of state and federal mitigation efforts is to monitor the feral swine for disease. Again, here’s Falyn:

OWENS: Feral swine can transfer a number of diseases to domestic swine, and even other animals, like cattle, and human beings. They carry diseases that can be transferred to human beings.

PELLICER: Feral hogs are squealin’, rootin’ disease vectors. They can carry at least 45 different viruses, bacteria and parasites. Some, like brucellosis affect humans. Hunters can get sick from handling a carcass or eating undercooked meat from an infected hog. Others, like pseudorabies, bovine tuberculosis and hog cholera, pose threats to livestock.

OWENS: There's there's one in particular called African swine fever that is incredibly virulent and deadly to swine. It doesn't affect humans. But if swine get it, it is bad news. And we don't have it here in the United States yet, but if we did get it in the United States, it can transfer from animal to animal very quickly.

PELLICER: If it were to show up in this country, feral hogs could act as a reservoir for the disease, and potentially transmit it to domestic pigs.

OWENS: The potential for it spreading incredibly rapidly is very high. And that could decimate our commercial pig industry.

PELLICER: With no treatment or vaccine available, the introduction of African Swine Fever would be a death sentence for millions of domestic pigs, and a serious blow to North Carolina’s $10 billion pork industry. It’s just the sort of nightmare that keeps pork producers in Sampson County up at night.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FRIEND: Where some see a growing problem, Wyatt Walton sees a money-making opportunity.

WALTON: You know, there's always going to be a hefty supply of fornicatin' rooters. So there was going to be a demand, you know, for a service company that was available. So here we are.

FRIEND: He’s a founder of Lone Star Trapping, an outfit that uses large remote-controlled traps like the ones demonstrated in Sampson County. He makes a living trapping feral hogs all over Texas.

Wyatt got his start trapping hogs as a kid when they showed up on his family’s ranch near Abilene. The swine were a nuisance, ruining the hay and competing with the cattle for the scarce water resources on the property.

WALTON: You know, I remember being, you know, 15, 16 years old, and figuring out that we had some of these back there. And it was, you know, good cheap entertainment, really, kept me out of trouble back there doing something good.

FRIEND: These days, he estimates his company traps upwards of 7,000 feral hogs each year.

WALTON: You got to have some brass. You know, they're just a dangerous animal, I mean you can't slip up. If you make a mistake, and you lean on the wrong trailer, and you put your fingers, you know, next to the wrong panel, you know, you're liable to lose it. There's not a lot of job sites that, if you make a mistake, you're liable to get ate up.

FRIEND: When a landowner calls about a hog problem, Wyatt and his team go out and start setting bait to train the hogs to feed in a certain area. Then slowly they bring in the equipment needed to build the large enclosure traps. This can take a while, but it’s crucial to make sure the hogs don’t get spooked and flee the area. Once game cameras show that the whole group is in the pen, he can trigger the trap to close using just a text message.

His goal is to snatch up an entire sounder at once, so none are left behind because a hog that’s seen how the trap works is a hog you can likely never catch again.

WALTON: There's only one thing worse than a feral hog and that's an educated feral hog. You know, a hog that knows the deal, and you can't trap.

FRIEND: Once trapped, he takes the hogs for slaughter and processing at a USDA-approved facility. Wyatt also runs a side business selling wild boar meat. On his website, you can order 10 or 20-pound variety packs, described as “juicy, rich, dark meat that tastes like a savory combination of beef and pork.” Wyatt calls it America’s most wasted resource.

WALTON: They are a fantastic meat resource. What people don’t give them credit for, I’d say, is how they taste.

PELLICER: In Texas and beyond, entire industries have grown up around the trapping and sale of feral hogs and their meat. The Texas Observer estimated meat processing companies are buying millions of dollars worth of live hogs each year to slaughter and sell to restaurants and distributors in America, Europe, and Asia.

Recreational hunting is also big business. For $1,200, you can book a two-day trophy hunt to land a wild boar. For $2,500, you can book a helicopter hog hunting package that includes semi-automatic rifles and unlimited ammo. Full automatic costs extra.

These purveyors have a vested interest in making sure there are plenty of hogs available for their customers. And in the case of trophy hunting, the bigger the better. Hunters and poachers continue to introduce feral hogs to new areas throughout the country, sometimes illegally, for sport. 

But hunting isn’t enough to outstrip the swine's prolific breeding abilities. Researchers at Mississippi State University estimate even if you wipe out 90 percent of hogs in a given area, you’ll still see the breeding population increase by a third within a year.

OWENS: We know how to protect animals that we want to continue to be able to hunt, we have really good science on that. And that can boil down to, you know, letting young animals go, letting females go and targeting sort of older male animals, which are kind of the trophy animals. So if you are really focusing on hunting your adult male animals, and not removing females or young, that will allow the population to grow.

PELLICER: They cause billions of dollars worth of agricultural and environmental damage, but they are also the second most popular game animal in the nation. As much as wild hogs are a destructive, disease-ridden scourge, we've created entire economies that depend on the survival of this invasive species. With money to be made, some stakeholders now have incentives to maintain populations of feral swine, not eradicate them.

From Spanish explorers to Edwardian-era elites to modern-day landowners looking for a new hobby, we keep ushering this invasive species into new territory, and, as we’ve seen time and again, fences aren’t always enough to hold them. Once they’re on the loose, they use the feeding and breeding superpowers we’ve encouraged in domestic pigs to truly go hog wild.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FRIEND: Texas boasts the largest population of wild hogs in the U.S., with upwards of two-and-a-half million swine running rampant. A couple of years ago, state Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller proposed a drastic new solution.

NEWS CLIP VOICE #1: Feral pigs in North Texas may soon face an apocalypse. The state’s agricultural commissioner has approved the first pesticide targeting wild hogs. There’s about two-and-a-half million of them plaguing Texas costing the Lone Star State around $50 million bucks a year.

NEWS CLIP VOICE #2: However the move has sparked outrage from hunters. They’ve started a petition to stop the annihilation. It’s already gotten over 1,000 signatures. They’re worried people, other animals, and the environment could be exposed to the poison.

FRIEND: Warfarin, the active ingredient in the proposed feral hog lure, is used in low doses in humans to keep blood from clotting. It’s also used to poison rats. It is a rough way to go for any animal that consumes fatal quantities, and Wyatt Walton, the Texas hog trapper, is not convinced the effects of the poison would be limited to the hogs it's supposed to target.

WALTON: They keep getting shut down, they're dangerous as all get out. If you have to get a hog, a group of hogs conditioned to this certain feeder, that only they can eat out of, you know, so that only them can eat this poison, because it's dangerous, one that tells you how dangerous it is. And two, if you've got to get all these hogs used to eating at this one spot, you might as well just put up a trap around them, like we're already doing, and removing them, and not, you know, poisoning an animal, because when you poison them, the first place they're gonna run is to water. You know, when they're insides start getting ate up, you know, by this poison, the first place they're gonna run to your water system and try to get a drink and die right there.

FRIEND: Wyatt wasn’t the only one worried about the knock-on effects of poisoning feral hogs. There’s a long history of unintended consequences when poisons used to manage unwanted wildlife populations are ingested by other animals.

Those with a taste for wild boar in Texas were especially concerned. A lawsuit filed by a company that processes and sells wild boar meat prompted the state to backtrack on the poison plan. So if you can’t shoot your way out of the feral swine problem, and you can’t poison your way out of it, how can you diffuse the swine bomb?

In June of 2021, Texas Ag Commissioner Miller announced a new idea, aimed at targeting the pigs reproductive edge. Birth control.

SID MILLER: You know, it’s very humane, unlike warfarin. It’s gonna be a great tool, we have, you know, over $500 million in damage each year in our state alone from these feral hogs.

FRIEND: The makers of Hog Stop contraceptive say it works by lowering the sperm count in male hogs. They note it can have similar impacts on other species including deer, raccoons, sheep, and goats, so wild hogs should be conditioned to feed from special feeders other animals can’t access.

In an interview with KTRE news in Texas, Hog Stop creator Daniel Loper stressed it’s not a poison.

DANIEL LOPER: It's made of all-natural feed ingredients. Nothing we’re using is hormones, we’re not using chemicals, poisons, anything like that. Everything we’re using is actually feed that is fed to deer, beef cattle, dairy cows every single day. For whatever reason, it really impacts the fertility of boars.

FRIEND: Wyatt Walton says Hog Stop is too new to know quite what to make of it. From his point of view, large-scale trapping is the best solution. Wildlife Biologist Falyn Owens says poison and contraceptive projects are being studied at a national level, but still have a ways to go.

OWENS: We don't have those technologies quite up to snuff yet. But there are definitely people who are working hard to figure out if those will be practical and feasible options in the future. Right now, our best option is that corral trapping. But definitely in the future, we might be able to use contraceptives or toxicants. But they, you know, they have to go through a lot of testing and we have to be very sure they work before those actually get approved for use.

FRIEND: For his part, Wyatt says he’d like to be part of a long-term solution.

Do you think you'll ever run out of feral hogs?

WALTON: I hope. If we ever get a hold of it to where the numbers will at least not be growing every year? You know, I'll be satisfied. You know, I think I'll feel good about that. If we ever have an impact to where we decline the numbers, because we're so spread out and we're catching so many pigs, like I will legit hang my hat on that. And that'll be one of my biggest achievements, I would say, in my life, if we can get a hold of it.

PELLICER: CREEP is a production of North Carolina Public Radio, WUNC in partnership with the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. Learn more about the series at wunc.org/creep. And be sure to subscribe to the podcast so you know every time we have a new episode for you. We’d also love it if you wrote us a review and shared CREEP with a friend you think might enjoy learning about the fascinating creatures all around us.

FRIEND: Many thanks to science communicator Eleanor Spicer Rice for helping to review and provide scientific feedback for this episode. Thanks also to journalist Lilly Knoepp who brought us voices from Western North Carolina. Charlie Shelton-Ormond is our producer, Amanda Magnus is our editor, Jenni Lawson is our audio engineer, and Lindsay Foster Thomas is our executive producer. Our theme music is by Quilla.

I’m Elizabeth Friend.

PELLICER: And I’m Laura Pellicer.