By Steve Hansen
QCS Managing Editor
The only good feral hog is a dead one.
That’s the central philosophy behind a $1 million effort started in January to rid Texas and eastern New Mexico of feral swine, wily but destructive imports to the Wild West, according to Ron Jones of Tucumcari, a wildlife hunter and trapper who hunts down the wild hogs for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The effort has bagged about 400 wild hogs to date, Jones said.
According to the USDA’s formula to estimate damage, a reduction of 400 hogs could prevent about $120,000 in damages, according to Carol Bannerman, public affairs specialist for the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Using that same formula, she said, the damages, both direct and indirect, from feral hog infestation is $1.5 billion nationally, based on an estimated national population of about 5 million of the troublesome swine.
Estimates of the feral hog populations in Quay County and northeastern New Mexico are hard to come by, Jones said. That’s mostly because there aren’t enough people per square mile of range land to get close enough to see them, he said.
And, they’re good at hiding during the day. Most of their destruction is done at night, he said.
Texas, he said, is more densely populated, so wild hogs are spotted regularly there.
To find feral hogs in Quay County, Jones said, he uses reports from landowners. He also keeps a lookout for signs both obvious and subtle that feral hogs have infested a tract of land.
Some signs include rooting holes, which are obvious, and tracks around a pond and wallowing evidence in mud near a pond, which are less obvious. A rooting feral hog can dig a rut large enough to damage a tractor tire or injure cattle stepping into rooting ruts.
The unwanted porkers are hunted from both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, which Jones said are especially effective. Another productive technique for locating feral hogs is the use of a “Judas hog.”
A Judas hog is a sole survivor of an attack on a group of feral swine. The Judas pig, usually a female, is caught and outfitted with a radio telemetry device that allows hunters to track her movement. The hog will almost always attach herself to a new group, and when she does, the hunters find more targets, Jones said.
County ranchers say sightings of the feral pigs have decreased this year. They blame dwindling water sources due to drought for decreased feral hog activity.
Bill Humphries, who operates a cattle ranch near Logan, credits the drought and the eradication effort for reducing hog-caused damage on his grazing lands.
Tom Sidwell, whose ranch borders the Caprock about 20 miles south of Tucumcari, said more damage from feral hogs seems to be occurring on the east side of N.M. 209 than on the west side, where his ranch is located.
Sidwell said there has been noticeably less damage to his property from feral hogs this year than in previous years. Like Humphries, he credits both the drought and hog hunts.
Not all Quay County ranches have received unwanted visits from wild pigs, though. Jeff Copeland, whose ranch is about 20 miles north of Nara Visa, said he has never seen a wild hog or noticed wild hog damage on his property, but he is expecting it.
”They’re still about 10 miles away from us,” he said, “but I know they’re coming.”
Feral hogs go unloved because they’re destructive and because they’re not native to the lands they have invaded. Bannerman and Jones said destruction takes two forms.
They’re opportunistic omnivores, eating a wide variety of both plant and animal matter, Bannerman said.
“They eat almost anything they can smell,” she said.
They will attack young calves, lambs and kid goats, Jones said, and also inflict damage on wildlife populations both by their eating habits and their destruction of habitat through rooting.
Getting rid of feral hogs, both said, could help keep the Lesser Prairie Chicken off the threatened species list, since the hogs damage prairie chicken habitat and eat their eggs.
Jones said wild hog rooting can pock-mark tracts of hundreds of acres so much that the land can become unusable.
Besides their destructive behavior, however, the wild hogs spread a variety of diseases, Bannerman and Jones said. Illnesses include pseudorabies, which can kill dogs that hunt the pigs, as well as other animals that come into contact with the wild pigs; and brucellosis, which can be spread to unprotected humans.
Bannerman said brucellosis, which affects reproductive organs, can be transferred to humans who dress killed hogs without taking proper precautions.
Jones said other animals can also catch swine fever and even swine influenza from contact with wild hogs.
They’re destructive and dangerous, and they’re not even natives of North America.
Some of the wild swine trace their origins to the pigs that unwillingly accompanied Spanish conquistadors as they wandered over the land that would become New Mexico and Texas in the 16th Century, Jones said. Later, he said, in a quest to develop an aggressive hunting hog with tusks and a great nose, the domestic swine of the Spanish conquerors were bred with Central European boars.
The result may have enhanced the hunt, but some got away. Their ancestors are now the dominant pest among the feral hogs the USDA now targets.