COWLEY COUNTY — Tom Berding remembers when crop damage by feral hogs was a dominant conversation in rural Cowley County.
A few years ago, one farmer had to re-plant 40 acres of corn after wild pigs ate the seed. Another lost acres of soybeans to ravenous herds. The damage totaled thousands of dollars per farmer.
No more. Berding has gone from having herds in his driveway to not seeing even a track for more than a year.
“That’s all good news,” he said. “They’re no longer a topic of conversation in the coffee shops.”
That’s because Kansas continues to be one of the nation’s most aggressive states at eradicating feral swine, which can also carry diseases that have been transferred to livestock, pets and humans. To insure parts of the state stays feral pig-free, Kansas-based biologists are also hammering wild hog populations just south of the Oklahoma border.
“I knew where they were coming from,” Curran Salter, a U.S. Department of Agriculture biologist said of Cowley County’s pig problem. “I approached my supervisor and said we could wait to get overrun, or we could take the fight to them in Oklahoma.”
So far, the fight seems one-sided.
Last year Salter, head of a multi-agency group working on feral hog eradication, and crews killed about 90 in Cowley County via trapping, night shooting and aerial gunning from helicopters. Last month in the same area they killed just one, and Salter said it was the first he’d seen in the region for a year.
He credits that to killing 180 feral hogs just below the Oklahoma border last year. The tally is much higher already in 2014.
Last month, after killing that lone boar in Kansas, the helicopter crew shotgunned about 125 pigs in about three hours in Oklahoma. Most were within six miles of the border. Salter said some of those pigs, or their hundreds of offspring that would have come within a few months, could have ended up in Kansas.
Biologists in other states applaud Kansas’ actions.
Now is the time
“If you don’t take those aggressive steps, in 30 years you’ll look like us, and this thing is out of control, “ said Mike Bodenchuk, a Texas-based USDA biologist in charge of combating the state’s estimated 2.6 million feral pigs. “We’re a shining example of what can go wrong.”
By some models, Texas’ feral swine cause more than $500 million in damages to the state’s agriculture.
Bodenchuk, widely seen as one of America’s top feral swine experts, says Kansas isn’t alone in dealing with the expansion of wild hogs.
The original product of domestic herds gone wild over the centuries, he said America’s feral hog range has expanded from about 17 states 20 years ago to about 40 states currently. Most of the spread has more to do with highways than hooves.
Both biologists blame hunters wanting to establish feral hog populations near their homes for the spread. Live-trapped wild pigs can be purchased in Texas and other places.
“That’s why you often see populations suddenly jump up on public hunting areas,” Salter said. “The guys who release them know they’ll always have easy access to the pigs.”
Kansas threw a wrench into that concept about seven years ago, when USDA biologists and the Kansas Department of Agriculture urged the state to make it illegal to transport feral hogs in Kansas. They also banned all but landowners from sport hunting wild swine, too. Bodenchuk said they’re smart moves.
“You can’t barbecue your way out of the problem, “ he said of sport hunting pigs. Salter said there’s no proof sport hunting has successfully managed a feral hog population.
Over about the past 15 years, Salter said 11 significant feral hog populations have popped up in Kansas. One of the first was on Fort Riley. That’s about when feral swine started in the Red Hills region, near Medicine Lodge.
Without hunters scattering the pigs, Salter and other biologists were eventually able to remove large numbers with baited traps. Many more were killed with specially trained helicopter crews. About 1,000 were killed in the Red Hills.
“It took us four or five years to get that one cleaned up because they were really widespread,” Salter said. “But for all practical purposes that population is gone. Except for a couple of lone boars, people down there haven’t seen a pig in several years.”
Other populations, scattered from border to border have been eliminated. Salter said the lone exception is in a Bourbon County in southeast Kansas, where some landowners desire feral pigs so they can hunt them with dogs. They won’t allow trapping or aerial gunning on those lands.
“As long as that’s going on the pigs are always going to have a refuge,” Salter said. “All we can do is work the pigs around the refuge area to keep it from getting totally out of control.”
Outside that area, he credits nearly 100-percent landowner cooperation for helping the Kansas project kill about 4,000 feral swine in the past several years.
With about 250 pigs, he thinks the Bourbon County herd is the only significant breeding population left in Kansas. Had it not been for the aggressive measures, Bodenchuk and Salter think the Kansas population would noq total more than 10,000 feral swine, and double every few years.
Pigs from neighboring states
Salter said the war on feral swine in Kansas will probably never be over.
A few river and creek areas leading from Oklahoma and Missouri into southeast Kansas are already on his radar as places where more pigs could arrive. About 15 were trapped this winter near the Little Caney River in Montgomery County, tight against the Oklahoma border.
Salter is proud of how things have gone in Cowley County, and across the border in Kay County, Okla. It’s a cooperative effort of USDA staff and wildlife departments from both states, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and many landowners and volunteers, like Berding, who has been helping run traps that have caught up to 42 pigs at a time.
Along with the recent trapping, the late February aerial gunning in the region killed about 300 feral pigs in Oklahoma. About 80 were shot in one pasture about six miles south of the border. Many were near where an Oklahoma farmer lost about 20 acres of wheat in a single night this winter.
Many of the pigs were on the public hunting area of Kaw Reservoir where hunters in Oklahoma, which still allows sport hunting, had pushed pigs into Kansas in the past.
For years on a tight annual budget of about $200,000, paid for by USDA, Kansas and some livestock groups, Salter recently learned his agency could be putting significantly more funding into controlling feral swine. That could mean added personnel afield and considerable more helicopter time, which could help locate, and eradicate, new populations while they are still small.
Spencer Grace, an Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation game warden who has been deeply involved with the project, is optimistic the program is working.
He said the local herd appears to be an isolated population that ends about eight miles into Oklahoma, meaning eradication could be possible. Grace estimates recent trapping and flights killed a high percentage of swine in the area.
“They had a big hog hunting competition last weekend and they had a total of one pig killed in Kay County,” he said “I know we’re putting a pretty good hurting on them.”