When Chris Columbus loaded up a dozen swine to make the trip across the Atlantic to the New World for the first time in 1492, little did he know it marked the beginning of what would eventually become a war on wild hogs by the time the 21st century dawned.
From the eight pigs that survived the voyage to nest in the "West Indies," to the estimated millions that now roam across the Americas, the problem with wild pigs seems to multiply faster than a calculator. This hardy and extremely adaptable animal species has slipped beyond the confines of farms and ranches in rural America and shed their domestic bonds in favor of rooting and surviving in the wild.
With tenacity and resourcefulness, feral swine tend to gather into sounders, or packs of wild pigs, and exert their aggressive behavior on their immediate environment, often competing with other types of wildlife for food and water resources. These opportunistic omnivores demonstrate a remarkable ability to survive under the harshest conditions, often destroying fields and forage as they root for food, contaminating water resources, and spreading a myriad of animal diseases that can negatively affect other animal species and even humans.
In Texas particularly, the problem is exaggerated by years of occupation, growth and adaptation. European swine were first brought to America by Spanish monks and missionaries. Early settlers brought numerous varieties of wild boars to Texas in later years. Released into the wild, these swine mated and rapidly multiplied and provided more abundant hunting opportunities for frontiersmen and settlers.
Today, Texas alone is home to an estimated 2.6 million feral swine, the largest population of any state. These wild animals are credited with causing an estimated $52 million in agricultural damages to the state each year, and that number is rising.
In spite of well-organized efforts to trap and hunt feral swine by state officials, contractors and private landowners, population numbers continue to increase, as do the problems associated with the proliferation of the species.
State officials say a few years back no one wanted to listen to warnings about the threat of a wild pig population. Only state wildlife biologists, a handful of Extension agents, and farmers and ranchers who were on the front line, understood the extent of the growing problem associated with an explosion of feral swine in the wild.
The problem has grown to such an extent in recent years that Texas lawmakers are beginning to ask questions, like why the problem hasn't been resolved in spite of funds dedicated specifically to addressing the issue. While such concern is generally well received by wildlife insiders, many say funds that have been available so far fall far short of what is needed, and though awareness of the problem is rising, researchers and wildlife managers say elected officials still fail to understand the dynamics of the problem.
Two Texas House committees met recently to discuss the escalating war on wild hogs and that offers hope that at least a few lawmakers are beginning to take the problem more seriously. Both committees say they hope to look deeply into what more can be done to reduce the wild pig population in the state and to control the problems associated with rapid population growth among feral swine in Texas.
"The damage caused by feral hogs has climbed to thousands of dollars per affected member," Gene Richardson of the Texas Farm Bureau told the House Agriculture & Livestock Committee and the chamber’s Culture, Recreation & Tourism panel. "Damage to personal property and to persons on Texas highways by feral hogs is taking its toll."
Legislators attending the meetings appear to be getting more involved. Several suggestions were offered as ways to better control feral swine populations: more aggressive aerial hunting, a more comprehensive program of trapping, and even a suggestion that poison baits could be used to eradicate the state's pig problem.
But Texas State Veterinarian and Director of the Texas Animal Health Commission, Dee Ellis, warned lawmakers it wasn't a question of eradication, but selective control.
“It's not a matter of eradication because that isn't going to work. We need to focus on selective control,” Ellis told lawmakers. He also warned committee members to understand that a feral hog represented a lot more than a wild boar.
"We define feral swine as basically any swine. There is no differentiation of species...a pig is a pig... if a pig is out, it’s feral; if it’s not out, it’s domestic,” Ellis explained.
Committee members say they expect to lay a number of legislative ideas on the table for consideration when the Legislature returns for the mid-January session. Rep. Drew Springer, a member of the Agriculture & Livestock Committee, said increasing problems with feral swine in Texas will get worse before it gets better. He noted that farmers in his district have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars to the problem already.
Other lawmakers agreed action is needed at the legislative level. One committee member said even urban areas were beginning to feel the pressure of growing feral swine populations, and the perils of spreading disease to human population centers increases proportionately.