Budget cuts could mean more feral hogs

For more than 75 years the Wilson family has battled bugs, drought, floods and poor crop prices to keep their Bourbon County farm financially afloat.

Now Mike Wilson fears state budget cuts may allow wild hogs — his "worst problem ever" — to run unchecked.

"You go out there with a combine and you find where you've lost 10 acres. It's all gone," said Wilson who put a loss of about $6,000 on such a spot. "That's just one field out of so many. It's serious."

With massive cuts coming to most state agencies, Bill Brown, Kansas Livestock Commissioner, isn't sure if he'll have any money to help combat Kansas' wild hog problem.

Since 2006 Kansas has annually donated about $170,000 to a USDA-run program aimed at killing hundreds of wild hogs a year.

The federal agency also donates a lesser amount to the program.

Biologists estimate wild hogs have done more than $3 million in damage to Kansas agriculture since 2006.

As they have in other states, they could soon start spreading diseases to domestic hogs and humans.

Tom Halstead, USDA wildlife services state director, said the program that uses trapping and aerial gunning from helicopters has decreased the Kansas population from about 2,000 a few years ago to about 500 today.

"There's no doubt this program is working," said Brown. "But it's a problem that's not totally fixed. We have a lot to lose if we don't have that funding."

John Johnson, a Kansas USDA biologist, said Kansas is the only state with a decreasing wild hog population.

"Right now we are the state every other state is looking to when it comes to handling feral swine," Johnson said. "We got on it early and we got on it right. Missouri got hogs at about the same time we did and their population is up to about 10,000."

Wild hogs are descendants of domestic swine that have been running loose since Spanish explorers first came to America in the 1500s.

Texas now is estimated to have more than 2 million wild hogs. Johnson said the national population is about 4 million hogs that cause about $800 million in annual damages. Those populations, he said, are in 39 states now, compared to 19 states about 20 years ago.

Kansas' top populations are in and around Bourbon County in the southeastern part of the state.

There are still a few near Arkansas City and in the Red Hills west of Medicine Lodge.

Biologists continue to check six or seven areas where populations have been eradicated or severely reduced.

About 26 Kansas counties have had wild hog populations in recent years.

Halstead said Kansas' populations have either moved in from neighboring states or been released by people wanting to establish populations for sport hunting.

Sport hunting was abolished a few years ago to discourage such illegal releases. Halstead said sport hunting also caused local populations to scatter.

Trapping and baiting keeps the hogs in an area that can be eventually flown by specially-trained helicopter crews. On good days such crews may shoot 100 or more hogs.

Johnson said about 750 Kansas landowners have voluntarily opened their properties to trapping and/or aerial gunning. Except for a few in southeast Kansas, landowner cooperation is now about 100 percent.

And the loss of funding for even one year could let Kansas' wild hogs get things rolling in the wrong direction.

Within just the past year biologists have begun detecting diseases like swine brucellosis and pseudorabies in Kansas wild hogs.

Both can easily be transmitted to domestic swine and have been in other states.

Brown is worried tularemia, which is becoming common in some Texas wild hog populations, could come to Kansas.

In some cases it can be fatal to humans.

Even if state funding is again granted this year Johnson said controlling wild hogs will be a Kansas concern for years to come.

"If you back off for even a year they'll be more right back up," he said. "There's no end to them on the Oklahoma side of the border."

Wilson sees the $170,000 of annual state money as a good investment to keep Kansas from becoming like Missouri, where wild hogs do about $8 million in damage annually and the population rages.

"It just seems like a pretty cheap insurance policy to me," he said. "All you have to do is look at other states and see how wrong things are going and how good things are in some places here."