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Health, Science, Environment

Feral Hogs Run Rampant Across The Midwest. But Hunting May Hurt More Than It Helps

Todd Kissinger and Dylon Schoonover crouch as they look at a sounder of feral hogs in the distance on June 26 at Hog Wild Preserve in Purcell, Oklahoma.
Seth Bodine
/
Harvest Public Media
Todd Kissinger and Dylon Schoonover crouch as they look at a sounder of feral hogs in the distance on June 26 at Hog Wild Preserve in Purcell, Oklahoma.

As Isaac Fisher walks in his pasture near Chattanooga, Oklahoma, he sees tracks and patches of grass that have been rooted up. When he visits his milo and wheat fields, he sees the same bald patches. He knows what’s causing the destruction: feral hogs. 

For him, it’s frustrating to see his fields like this.

“It's kind of defeating. I mean, you drive around and you know the potential that (the) field has after you've put so much time and money into producing a crop,” Fisher says. “And then you get out there, and once you get out and (are) harvesting it, there'll sure be some disappointment from the producers harvesting their crop when they see that damage.” 

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This devastation isn’t just happening in Fisher’s fields. There are more than 6 million feral hogs in the United States, causing more than $2.5 billion in damage every year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. While some states encourage hunting to reduce the population, some are implementing counterintuitive policies to help get rid of them. 

Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota have eliminated their hog populations. In Colorado, wildlife officials encouraged people to shoot hogs if they saw them on their land. Along with that tactic, they partnered with other states like Oklahoma to get rid of hogs. The process took about 15 years. 

“I encouraged every landowner in that particular area, every hunter that I talked to, that if they had the opportunity to shoot these pigs, they should probably try to get them off of the landscape,” says Travis Black, a deputy regional manager and hog expert for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

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But hunting can also be a double-edged sword, Black says. He says it gives people an incentive to keep feral hogs in the state or even bring in hogs to fuel the recreational hunting industry. 

One of the big struggles we have is … what seems to be a constant release of animals back into areas where they've been removed or into new areas,” says Dale Nolte, the program manager for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Feral Swine Damage Management Program.

Nolte says he has no problem with someone shooting a feral hog. But when they’re released to encourage hunting, those hogs can destroy a lot of land and potentially be a health risk.

Feral swine carry a number of zoonotic diseases, which are detrimental to humans,” he says. “I mean, swine brucellosis, hepatitis … we're finding leptospirosis in about 50% to 60% of the feral swine in some areas. There's a definite hazard out there.”

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In the Midwest, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska already have a range of restrictions on hunting feral hogs. Sam Wilson, the furbearer and carnivore program manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, says it’s harder to control the feral swine population when hunting is allowed.

The law seems counterintuitive at first because we're prohibiting people from hunting feral hogs,” Wilson says. “However, if you know anything about hunting and hunting culture, often the people who hunt deer, for instance, are interested in having good deer populations.” 

The 2018 Farm Bill created a fund to address hog problem areas through a pilot program. The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation started restricting feral hog hunting in those areas. But Eric Cowan, who works for the Animal Plant and Health Inspection service in Oklahoma, says he has run into roadblocks trying to trap hogs on private land. 

“We've got to have (the landowner’s) permission, and there's a lot of people that won't give us permission to work on their property,” Cowan says.

While some states with growing wild hog populations are adding more restrictions, others like Texas and Oklahoma still embrace hunting.

At Hog Wild Preserve in Purcell, Oklahoma, visitors pay up to $600 to hunt a feral hog. Dylon Schoonover, a guide for Hog Wild, insists the hunts help control the hog population. 

“Just like a manager of a company manages the company, and the employees … we manage populations,” Schoonover says. “And in turn, we get to eat awesome, awesome meat.” 

Matthew Wetzel, the owner of Hog Wild, says many of his customers come from out of state to hunt the hogs. He says if Oklahoma banned recreational hog hunting, his business would lose up to $400,000.

Todd Kissinger came from Mulvane, Kansas, to hunt hogs as part of a bachelor party. Kissinger, a farmer and rancher, says while the experience is fun, he wouldn’t want to find hogs in his fields.

“We have huge flocks of geese that come in on our wheat fields, and they will mow it down,” Kissinger says. “ I mean, they will just eat it down to the bare dirt, so I can only imagine what a bunch of hogs will do.” 

The USDA estimates Oklahoma has more than 750,000 feral swine in the state. 

Since Oklahoma’s hog population is so large, hunting restrictions wouldn’t be as effective, says Scott Alls, the state’s USDA Wildlife Services director.

“If that (hunting restrictions) had been enacted early on here, the problem wouldn’t be as bad as it is now,” Alls says. “But now with the numbers we have now, I don't think those policies really make a lot of difference to us as a state.”

Farmers like Fisher think hunting is here to stay in Oklahoma too. But one thing is clear: he wants the hogs off his land. 

“As long as there's profit in it for people, there's no incentive to get rid of them,” Fisher says. “For me, I would love to see them all disappear. Just because it's hurting our way of life.”

Copyright 2021 Harvest Public Media.

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