Who didn’t love ‘Babe?’ The 90s’ favorite talking piglet was cute, spunky, and like many of us in rural northeastern Texas, lived in quiet farm country. But cute, spunky livestock, of course, is not the problem.
It’s Babe’s less-refined, wild cousins that are giving Texas a collective case of apoplexy these days. Feral hogs, wild pigs, undomesticated swine ---- call them what you want, but feral hogs have become a multimillion-strong population in Texas, and a multimillion-dollar liability to farmers and property owners.
But while the state wrangles over what to do about the up-spiraling wild pig population, I wondered: How did we get to the point where free-ranging feral pigs are a problem? And just how much of a problem is it?
“Does Texas have a hog problem? Yes, it does,” says Luke Clayton. “But it’s not across the board, there are hotspots.”
Luke Clayton, a longtime hog hunter and host of ‘Outdoors with Luke Clayton’ on KETR, says that in some Texas counties, hunters wished there were more hogs.
“I know that’s kind of a sacrilegious thing to say, but all of Texas and even all the habitat is not overrun by wild hogs right now.”
One of the problems with defining the size of the problem is ---- there’s no consensus on the size of the population.
“There’ve been a number of different ways of estimating it over the years,” says Dr. John Tomecek of the Texas AgriLife Extension Wildlife and Fisheries in San Angelo. “I’ve seen it range anywhere from 2.5 million to 11 million.”
That’s a pretty wide range. I asked Justin Foster, research coordinator for Region 2 at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, near Austin, why that range is so “rangy.”
“We have not as a scientific community developed reliable population estimators for feral pigs,” Foster says. “Most scientists that are making such estimates are using the current best available information. But like I said, typically our confidence in those estimations is pretty loose.”
Wild pig populations are notoriously hard to monitor. In large part, because they’re not easy to find. It turns out, feral hogs are wary, hardy, and smart. Left alone, feral pigs can live from 4 to 20 years. So even when a research can find one to put a tracking collar on, that $3,000 collar will die before most pigs. Meaning longterm tracking is next to impossible.
Feral hogs are also eminently adaptable, highly mobile, and almost always nocturnal. Ironically, these very qualities are what make these animals so prized to hunters.
“A hog is the most wary animal that I’ve ever hunted,” Clayton says. “Where a whitetail deer or an elk will use its senses and just react, a hog will reason.” A hog that comes across another killed hog, for example, will avoid coming back to that spot. “You won’t see him ,” he says.
There’s another prized quality, of course ---- hogs are delicious. And it’s not just hunters who think so. Hogs trapped and harvested in Texas are often sold to processors who ship wild hog meat around the world. It’s a particular delicacy in Germany. But this also makes hog hunting an industry. Trapped, healthy hogs might sell for 75 cents a pound, which adds up quickly when someone lands a 150-pound catch. Or better yet, a sounder of several hogs. This, of course, means the occasional illicit activity that ends up spreading populations around.
“There’s certainly good evidence, particularly from the genetic work that is being done that shows the disconnect between genetic relatedness, sometimes from one population to the other,” Foster says. “So we have hard evidence that these animals are being moved intentionally.”
It’s not all malicious intent by hunters looking for interesting and valuable game. Part of the reason hog populations have taken off is due to the military conflicts Texas has seen in its time. The Texas-Mexico War, the Civil War, and so on, often caused settlers to desert their farms before men with guns showed up. A lot of times, they just left the animals. And the gates open.
Once left to their own, hogs tend to be prolific breeders.
“One sow, through her direct reproduction and her offspring could be responsible for as many as 50 new pigs in a period of about 24 months,” Tomecek says.
And most piglets survive. Especially where nutrition )i.e., farms and abundant prey) is good and new water sources (i.e., ranches and ponds) are introduced. Plus, there’s this:
“The natural predators of wild pigs over in Europe would be European gray wolves, brown bears … and even then, a mature wild boar is a formidable opponent,” Tomecek says. “In Texas, we don’t have wolves. We do have mountain lions, but they’re relatively few in number; and we have a few black bears. But remember, a mature feral pig and a black bear, their weigh different is not terribly much. Truly a feral hog in Texas has not many predators.”
Ecologically speaking, the problem with these hardy pigs is twofold. For one, they don’t like it hot. Or at least not Texas hot. So wild hogs find solace in dug-up soil or cool freshwater collections, where they also, um … relieve themselves with the abandon of a drunken king, making contamination of freshwater a concern.
There’s also their appetite. Wild hogs often tear up ground and crops and will eat small animals if they can get their mouths around them. Once they identify something as a food source, that is.
“Feral pigs are neophobic,” he says. “That means anything new, they’re going to have a fear of.”
When it comes to finding food, Foster says, that means the hogs are wary to try anything unfamiliar. But once they realize it’s food, they will voraciously seek that food out. And if that new meal also happens to be an endangered species? Well, let’s just say feral hogs are not part of the effort to save sea turtle eggs they sniff out with their powerful noses.
Foster is concerned that as feral hogs spread across the U.S. and Canada ---- more on that in a moment ---- they’ll take a liking to, say, an endangered lizard that spends its winters under a 50-pound rock to keep safe.
“Now you have an animal on the landscape that can smell a truffle several feet below ground , that can detect the scent, readily, of other animals, and has the ability to move a 50-pound rock,” Foster says.
About that population expansion – feral hogs are not just a Texas problem. The problem has been growing further out of control since the 1980s, and it is indeed spreading, from the deserts of the southwest to the arboreal forests of Canada.
When Foster was in high school in Roswell, New Mexico, in the early 1990s, he says wild hogs were the stuff of lore and legend.
“Sometime around 2014,” Foster says, “New Mexico indicted that they were populated in 70 percent of counties.”
Efforts to curb feral hogs has become a political battle between lawmakers, hunters, trappers, meat processors, and environmentalists. But while the debate rages over how to best manage feral pig populations, sightings of these animals may move further from the realm of lore towards the tastiest infestation of a nonnative species Texas has ever seen.