On Monday, the internet went hog wild over 30-50 feral hogs, the roving menace that Twitter user Willie McNabb blamed for terrorizing his children, justifying his need for assault weapons. Many of the riffs on the seemingly bizarre statement about the feral hog invasion in this man’s yard expressed amusement at the idea that feral hogs pose a real danger to anyone.
But feral hogs really are a problem in the United States. It’s bad enough that the US Department of Agriculture has put $75 million toward swine control and eradication.
Research published Tuesday in the open-access journal PLOS Biology by Clemson University researchers emphasizes that feral hogs and elephants should be considered in public policy meant to protect livestock from carnivorous predators.
The threats posed to livestock by carnivores like wolves, lions, and tigers around the world are well-documented, but there’s less information on seemingly non-threatening animals like elephants and hogs, write study authors Shari Rodriguez, Ph.D., an assistant professor of forestry and environmental conservation, and Christie Sampson, Ph.D., a post-doctoral research associate. (Both are also research associates with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.)
Farmers have shared anecdotal reports about the damage these animals do, but there’s not much scientific research on the full extent of the damage or how to deal with it.
Sampson tells Inverse that this work was motivated by another team’s research on conflicts between farmers and carnivores over livestock. She had just come back from studying livestock-killing elephants in Myanmar, and Rodriguez had previously worked on feral hogs, so they thought their work could fill in a crucial gap.
As fortune would have it, the feral hog meme surfaced the day before Rodriguez and Sampson’s paper came out.
30-50 Feral Hogs
First, here’s some background on the meme. In the wake of two deadly mass shootings over the weekend, singer-songwriter Jason Isbell tweeted that people shouldn’t be debating the definition of assault weapons and that in fact, people don’t need assault weapons at all.
In response to Isbell, Twitter user @WillieMcNabb fired back about how he needs such weapons to kill the hordes of feral hogs that threaten his children at play in the yard:
The absurdity of the response turned it into a meme instantly.
For many tweeters, the whole joke was that feral hogs aren’t a real problem in the US. But according to Sampson and Rodriguez, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Feral Hogs Are a Real Problem
“In particular in the southeast, hogs are a very big deal,” Rodriguez tells Inverse. “It may be happening today, but it’s been going on for a lot longer.”
Many people, however, do not associate feral pigs and elephants with the carnivores already studied for their impact on livestock. “What we were interested in doing was making an addendum to their research,” says Sampson.
“We already have a ton of research on how carnivores impact livestock and the mitigation methods that they’re using. Why don’t we bring in these two other species that are generally not considered in this conversation: hogs and elephants.”
In their study, they observed that the same methods farmers and land managers use to keep carnivores away from livestock could also work to safely keep elephants and hogs away, too.
According to the USDA, there are over 6 million feral hogs in 35 US states, and their numbers are rapidly growing. Feral hogs can have up to two litters each year, and each litter can include as many as a dozen piglets.
“They reproduce exponentially,” says Rodriguez.
These huge numbers of roving hogs, which weigh around 200 pounds, cost millions of dollars in damage to crops and property as they root in the ground for tubers, grass, and roots. They can even kill young livestock.
“They have a much more significant impact on agriculture, but they are omnivores, and as such, what I like to say is they can make a living eating anything, whether it’s agriculture, whether it’s endangered salamanders, whether it’s deer fawn, whether it’s small livestock,” says Rodriguez.
“They can eat anything,” she says. To drive the point home, she notes that she likes to call them “ecological zombies.”
So that’s settled: Feral hogs are a real problem, though they pose more of a threat to your lawn than to your kids.
How to Get Rid of Feral Hogs
But is picking off a few hogs with assault weapons a good way to deal with them? Rodriguez and Sampson answer with a resounding “no.”
“They’re difficult to get rid of in a way that doesn’t educate them on our methods of mitigation,” says Rodriguez.
In other words, if you trap and dispatch 20 hogs out of a 25-hog sounder, the remaining five will be wiser next time, and you will need to find a new way to deal with them.
“Hogs are very smart, so one of the best ways to eradicate a family group — called a sounder — in a particular area is what’s called ‘whole sounder removal,’” says Rodriguez.
This is often done with a corral trap, a baited, fenced-in area that can be remotely closed to trap the hogs, which are then dispatched. “Typically,” she says, “it’s done with a gun.”
“If you don’t capture them the first time on a new mitigation method, you’ve gotta try something new,” she says. And there simply aren’t enough new methods to keep up with how smart the pigs are.
In the video below, you can see that some of the older hogs simply won’t enter the baited corral:
Since even a sophisticated corral trap isn’t always successful, says Rodriguez, shooting a rifle into a sounder is likely to be even less successful.
“That’s what we would call opportunistic hunting of hogs,” she says. “So while you may get an animal or two, it’s a drop in the bucket. It really does nothing to decrease the population of hogs.”
“Also, because hogs are so smart, they will habituate to that method and begin avoiding areas where they think they might get shot,” she adds. “It’s not a long-term, sustainable solution.”
Rather than shooting hogs with an AR-15, Rodriguez and Sampson say their research suggests that it’s more effective to keep feral hogs away from your property with the same methods that would be used to keep away lions and tigers from livestock in Africa and Asia.
These include flashing lights, shouting, and diversionary feeding — placing food bait away from livestock to lure away the threatening animals. They also mention fladry, a type of fence made of rope with flags hung from it. While the fence doesn’t create a physical barrier, it can deter predators.
They also recommend communicating with local agricultural extension staff, who can help landowners set up traps and figure out how to deal with the feral hog threat.
Long story short, Willie McNabb may keep a few hogs away with his semiautomatic rifle, but he’s certainly not putting a dent in the bigger problem.
Abstract: Promoting human–wildlife coexistence is critical to the long-term conservation of many wild animal species that come into conflict with humans. Loss of livestock to carnivore species (e.g., lions, tigers, wolves) is a well-documented occurrence and the focus of mitigation strategies around the world. One area that has received little research is the impact of non- carnivores on livestock. Both African and Asian elephant species are known to cause live- stock injuries and deaths. Livestock owners within elephant ranges perceive elephants as a risk to their livestock, which may reduce their tolerance towards elephants and jeopardize conservation efforts in the area. Though feral hogs may not be of conservation concern, these animals contribute significant losses to farmers’ livelihoods. We advocate for the inclu- sion of noncarnivore species in policies that promote livestock protection because it will allow for better communication regarding effective strategies and more application in the field.