Destructive beasts threaten farms, native wildlife
Add up all the wild hogs in Louisiana, and you get roughly the same number of people who live in Baton Rouge and New Orleans combined. And that’s after hunters last year killed more wild hogs than there are people in Lafayette.
The exploding feral hog population in the southeastern U.S. causes an estimated $1.5 billion in damage every year as the voracious eaters root up pastures, destroy crops, pull up seeds, damage forests and generally wreak havoc everywhere they go.
In the past, wild hogs were mostly a Texas problem. But as they spread into Louisiana, animal scientists are looking at different ways to control the notoriously fertile beasts.
So far, the state has hired sharpshooters to pick off hogs one by one from helicopters — a somewhat questionable tactic considering there are an estimated 500,000 wild hogs roaming the state.
LSU’s Agricultural Center is working on another strategy that could one day be used in conjunction with the sharpshooting to get wild hog populations under control.
Phil Elzer, the AgCenter’s program leader for animal sciences, said the idea is to use the animals’ legendary greediness against them in developing a bait that proves lethal to wild pigs, without harming other animals.
“This isn’t going to be like rat poison, where if you give it in very high doses, you can kill anything, including the nontarget species,” Elzer said. “We don’t want to just throw something out there and it ends up killing bears or other wildlife.”
With a $108,000 grant from the Pennington Foundation and matching funds from the AgCenter, Elzer said LSU researchers are studying an Australian product.
He explains that it’s a type of salt, ironically used as a food preservative in pork products.
“It’s very toxic to pigs but not to humans or dogs or cattle and other farm animals,” he said.
When ingested, the salt causes a blood disorder in pigs, namely their red blood cells lose the ability to carry oxygen to different tissues in the body, Elzer said.
Other animals, including humans, horses, dogs, cats and sheep, carry an enzyme at levels sufficient enough to prevent that blood disorder, while pigs do not, he said.
A wild hog that has eaten a large enough dosage of the salt product would slowly lose consciousness from low levels of oxygen until it falls asleep and doesn’t wake back up. Elzer estimates death would come within 30 minutes.
“And if they don’t get enough of the salt compound, they wake up and start eating again,” Elzer said. “It’s very humane ... it would be like dying from carbon monoxide poisoning. It wouldn’t be anything like dying from drowning or strangulation.”
Over the next two years, the AgCenter will be importing hogs captured near its office in Clinton and testing them at their research facility on Ben Hur Road.
“Specifically, we want to determine the level of compound we need to achieve the lethal effect,” he said.
Researchers are currently planning to put the salt compound into strawberry-flavored gelatin “bait cubes.” The bait would then be coated in scented candle wax, to protect it from the rain, before being distributed in the wild.
“We’re at the stage where we’re asking, ‘Will it work?’ We’re not yet at the stage where we start scattering it around,” Elzer said.
He said it’s plausible the AgCenter could start using the bait on a large scale within the next five years.
Wild hogs were introduced into North America by Spanish explorers in the 1500s. Researchers believe it took until the 1900s before feral hog hunting really took off as a recreational sport. It was that popularity that prompted hunters to round up groups of hogs and transport them to other states to establish new hunting grounds.
The problem is that wild hogs are prolific breeders that can produce two or three litters a year with as many as a dozen piglets to a litter.
They are also known as formidable animals that learn on the fly and adjust to different hunting techniques. They can live up to 10 years or more and grow to an average size between 100 and 150 pounds. Some hogs can grow to as large as 500 pounds.
Experts estimate that killing between 75 percent and 85 percent of the wild hogs in North America would do nothing but maintain their population. In other words, more than 85 percent of the wild hogs roaming the continent today would have to be killed in order to keep their numbers in check.
Jim LaCour, Louisiana’s wildlife veterinarian, said in addition to stripping farmland bare of their crops, wild hogs also hinder forest regeneration as they gorge on acorns, destroy levees, carry disease, pollute streams, kill young game animals and sometimes out-compete native species for food.
In response, the state has loosened hunting restrictions, giving deer hunters a green light to hunt hogs year round during daylight, and at nighttime between February and August. LaCour said hunters killed 161,000 wild hogs last year.
“The efforts of the hunters is paramount to controlling the pigs,” LaCour said. “Their efforts are very, very valuable to what we’re doing.”
LaCour is in favor of the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries initiative to shoot wild hogs from helicopters, but he said that likely won’t be enough as shooters can be hampered by weather, foliage and a number of other factors.
LaCour said he welcomes the LSU AgCenter’s research, and other methods that haven’t yet proven to be cost-effective or plausible, including sterilization and a process known as immunocontraception, where scientists introduce a gene into an animal population that prevents them from producing offspring.
“There really has to be a combination of strategies,” he said. “Shooting, bait, hunting, hog-dogging and trapping are all possible. We have to look at a number of things.”