Most of America is losing the war on feral hogs.
Last year in the U.S., an estimated 5 million wild swine caused about $1.6 billion in damage to crops, lawns, wildlife habitat and by introducing diseases to domestic animals.
They’ve expanded to about 40 states, about double from two decades ago, and within those states their range and populations are growing quickly.
Kansas is the lone exception.
From about 2,500 about six years ago, the state now has about 1,000 feral hogs, according to Curran Salter, a U.S. Department of Agriculture wildlife services biologist. That has made Kansas the envy of other states.
“We’re very interested in what’s going on in Kansas,” said Rex Martensen, of the Missouri Department of Conservation. “I think Kansas was smart early on.”
“A lot of other states are watching Kansas closely,” said Seth Swafford, USDA wildlife services director for Iowa and Missouri. “We’re paying attention.”
On the road
By 7 a.m. one day last week, Salter had been on the go for about four hours. He was heading to where he hoped to reduce the Kansas population of feral hogs by a dozen.
“I got this truck in mid-January and it already has 62,000 miles on it,” he said as he drove through Cowley County. “People think this sounds like a cool job, but I doubt they would if they knew the time it takes.”
Based out of Hoisington, near Great Bend, Salter keeps tabs on Kansas’ half-dozen or so feral hog populations.
A few are scattered along the Cimarron River in southwest Kansas and in southern Barber County. Bourbon County, near Fort Scott, has Kansas’ highest wild pig population, which Salter estimates at 800.
He also sometimes monitors areas where localized populations once thrived before the USDA and some state agencies went to work.
“Fort Riley hasn’t had any pigs since about 2000,” Salter said. “Nobody has seen much for a couple of years in that area of Barber, Pratt and Kiowa counties. There were probably 800 to 900 there.”
Last week he hoped to find the only hogs confirmed in Cowley County waiting in a special trap. About 250 wild swine have been killed there in past years.
Between aerial gunning from helicopters and trapping, Salter said around 2,600 feral Kansas hogs have been killed since 2006.
That’s also the year Kansas took a huge step toward solving its growing problem by banning sport hunting for feral hogs. Landowners can still shoot them on their property.
Though it works well with deer, sport hunting does little to control the number of the highly intelligent, mostly nocturnal and very fertile wild hogs.
“It’s just not an effective way to control pig populations,” Salter said.
“If (sport hunters) get on a group of 20, they may get three or four. After that the pigs take off and become someone else’s problem. When they come back, there’ll be more of them.”
Salter has seen Kansas wild sows with 10 or 12 piglets, and said a half-dozen per litter is a safe average. Unfortunately most sows have two litters per year.
In addition to preventing a faster spread of feral hogs, the sport hunting ban slowed a major problem – Kansans buying wild hogs from trappers in Oklahoma or Texas and releasing them in Kansas for future hunting opportunities.
Help from landowners
About the same time, the wild hog eradication program began working closely with Kansas landowners to get populations located and eradicated. It took very little arm-twisting.
“I’ve had good friends lose entire crops of corn, soybeans and even milo to hogs,” said Tom Berding, a Cowley County landowner who often volunteers to help Salter. “Sometimes they seem to tear things out as fast as the fields can be planted. They’re also tearing up a lot of fields so bad you really can’t drive (farming) equipment over them.”
Salter said biologists in other states are envious when they hear that nearly 100 percent of Kansas landowners have agreed to allow trapping and gunning on their lands. So far, about 550 Kansas landowners have opened about 750,000 acres to the project.
The lone exception is about 3,000 acres in Bourbon County where landowners want the pigs around for personal hunting.
Though the late winter aerial gunning program often kills scores of pigs in a day, it’s expensive and takes huge chunks from the about $170,000 furnished by the Kansas Department of Agriculture for the program. So, that leaves Salter to other means the rest of the year.
Salter sometimes uses night-vision gear to check areas where hogs have been reported. By special permit, he has a semi-automatic rifle with a sound suppressor to work on herds.
“I generally have a rule of half when I find some pigs,” Salter said of night shooting. “If I think I can get half of the herd, I’ll shoot. If not, I’ll probably try to set up a trap.”
Importance of patience
Unlike traps laid for most animals, wild hog traps aren’t one-night affairs.
Salter has invested many consecutive nights of scouting without a hog being seen. Well-scouted hog herds have been scattered when an illegal hunter with dogs pushed through an area.
Salter estimated he had about two months invested in Wednesday’s trap near the Arkansas River.
“When that trap goes I want them all inside, and that takes patience,” he said.
What began as a pile of corn with some fence panels scattered about was eventually formed into a pen about 20 feet across.
Remote trail cameras monitored the size of the local herd, plus how they were reacting to the setup. When the camera showed all seemed at ease inside the trap for a few days, Berding set the trip wire on Tuesday.
Rifles ready, Salter and Berding approached the trap carefully Wednesday morning.
The good news was the trap had been sprung. The bad news was it held just four pigs, two of which were sows due to give birth any day.
“I really wanted them all,” Salter said after the hogs had been quickly killed. “Now we have eight other pigs out there that will probably be trap shy.”
Berding was optimistic as they began taking blood samples to be tested for diseases.
“We know where they are,” he said. “We’ll keep an eye on them and get them with the helicopter this winter.”
But even if all upcoming flights and set traps work perfectly, Salter said the work will never be done.
“As long as they have (growing) populations in Oklahoma, we’ll have pigs coming over our border,” he said. “We’ll have to do some annual maintenance, trapping and maybe flying.
“But we’re in pretty good shape. We can handle that.”