December 13, 2012

Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
A week or so ago, a friend sent me a picture of the feeder he has on his property in Baldwin County. He’s sent me photos before, but they had always contained a nice buck or two. This photo was different. The feeder was totally surrounded by feral hogs.

Other landowners, hunters and farmers are experiencing the same anxiety as the feral hog problem continues to spread throughout Alabama and the nation. Feral hogs are now found in 45 states with no abatement in sight.

That is the reason for the recently formed Alabama Feral Hog Control Council, which was formed through the collaboration of Conservation Commissioner N. Gunter Guy Jr., Agriculture and Industries Commissioner John McMillan and the Alabama Wildlife Federation (AWF).

The first meeting of the council, which occurred recently, included not only AWF, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries, but also a number of other organizations and agencies, like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Alabama Cooperative Extension System and the National Wild Turkey Federation.

“There are three objectives of the council,” said Commissioner Guy. “The first is to have a collective voice for gathering and disseminating existing feral hog control information. The second is to develop, through the use of all of our expertise, ways to identify, promote and conduct effective research to maximize control of feral hogs. And third is to use our council as a mechanism to consult with policy makers and to give advice to people on feral hog control.

“The feral hog problem is one we must address and deal with. This council is an excellent way to do that. It brings us into one arena where we can share ideas, information and strategies to best address the problem.”

Guy said the first council meeting gave a great deal of insight into how other agencies and organizations are addressing the feral hog problem.

“I believe it will be important for this council to look at how we can maximize our research dollars,” he said. “What we have to do is continue to communicate, develop strategies, think about funding and push this issue along. Funding is critical or this problem could get further out of hand.”

One member of the council is Chris Jaworowski, the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries feral hog expert, who has to deal with the destructive animals regularly as he manages the Lowndes County Wildlife Management Area (WMA) in central Alabama.

Despite extensive efforts to control the feral hogs at Lowndes, Jaworowski said it’s doubtful there has been any progress made.

“With their reproductive rate, you have to take out 80 percent of the population each year to keep it stable,” Jaworowski said. “Feral sows can have three litters every 14 months with an average litter size of six. We have special seasons at Lowndes, and we’re only able to take out a couple of hundred animals a year.”

Feral hogs are considered game animals in Alabama with no closed season or bag limit on private property. On Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) hunters can take feral hogs anytime there is any hunting season open (check specific WMAs for hunting regulations).

However, hunting feral hogs to control the population has proven to be a futile endeavor.

“Stalking pigs, hunting with dogs, even hunting at night or trying to hunt over bait, all those are effective, but you’re talking about low harvest numbers,” Jaworowski said. “If you walk up on 10, how many are you going to get to kill before they run off. Maybe two, if you’re lucky.

“Hunting popularity is through the roof. I still get more calls about hog hunting on Lowndes than I do deer hunting. We offer some special seasons at Lowndes with unlimited bag limits, but success rates with hunting are low. It’s not going to solve the problem. Every one we take out is a bonus, but we may hunt 10 days and get 25 pigs. You just can’t take out enough animals by hunting. That’s why trapping programs are so important.”

Jaworowski said trapping hogs has moved into the 21st century with the introduction of electronics into the trapping equipment. He said there are models on the market that combine cell-phone technology and a mechanized trap door. The rig consists of a corral trap with the wireless-operated door, which has an electronic lock, cellular camera, motion sensor and modem.

“The wireless trap is not the end-all, cure-all,” he said. “It’s too expensive for most people. But it’s neat technology. The technology allows you to monitor your hog trap 24/7 without ever having to drive to the trap. The motion sensor takes a picture of whatever walks into the trap, day or night. The modem will e-mail the pictures to multiple e-mail addresses. You’re able to monitor the pictures out of your trap and you get them within a minute. I had it coming to my home computer and my smartphone.

“I could literally be riding down the road or riding a tractor and get a picture through e-mail of my hog trap, which was 10 miles away. What’s really neat about it is after I review the pictures and I want to close the trap, I dial an 800 number and enter a four-digit code and shut the door on the trap with my cell phone.”

Jaworowski said those traps run about $3,000, which is the downside of technology. He recently tested one on loan, and he was impressed.

“It’s not an average landowner-type deal,” he said. “But if you’ve got a co-op of landowners who are willing to split it, you could make your trap portable. What’s great about it is it allows you to be patient. You don’t have to spend a bunch of time and gas running back and forth to check on the trap.

“I was able to monitor how many piglets a particular sow had,” he said. “It allows you to be a more effective trapper because we want to catch that entire sounder (family group) at one time. When you can catch entire sounders at one time, that’s pig control. But I don’t want people to think this is the solution. It may be part of the solution, but the solution has not been found, yet.”

What is encouraging to Jaworowski is the general public is more aware of the scourge feral pigs present.

“In the past three years we’ve got a lot more people educated about feral hogs and their impact on native wildlife and habitat,” he said. “And even though we have a lot more people conducting control efforts, we still have a large problem.”

Farmers are particularly susceptible to feral hog impact with the damage done to row crops and pastures and farm roads. Auburn University conducted a study in Alabama concerning feral hog damage and concluded that more than $74 million in damage was caused by feral hogs in 2009.

“You hear about the farm damage, but what you don’t hear about is the impact on the native wildlife and food sources,” Jaworowski said. “You may have 30 pigs going through your hardwood bottom like a Hoover vacuum cleaner, sucking up all the acorns that your deer, turkey and squirrels depend on. That doesn’t get mentioned enough. And you’ve got these threatened and endangered plant communities, like the pitcher plant bogs that have been destroyed by hogs. Some of those habitats will never come back.”

PHOTOS: (By Chris Jaworowski) Feral hogs continue to expand their range throughout Alabama and the nation. The Alabama Feral Hog Control Council was formed to try to explore ways to stop the expansion and deal with problem areas.