Invasion of the feral pigs

  • In Quay County in the spring of 2010, biologist Justin Stevenson documented feral pigs interacting with cattle for the first time in New Mexico. He says they were "close enough for nose-to-nose transmission" of diseases like pseudorabies and swine brucellosis.

    USDA
  • From a high point in the Quay Valley earlier this summer, Ron Jones uses a receiver to check four traps he had set.

    Ron Jones
  • Bureau of Land Management wildlife biologist Randy Howard, and USDA wildlife specialist Shannon "Bubba" Punnel, release a "Judas" pig after tagging its ear with a transmitter in southern New Mexico's sand dune country.

    USDA
 

About six years ago, Ron Jones got the phone call that changed his career. It came from a rancher just east of the barely there town of Quay, N.M., but that wasn't the unusual part. As the local agent for Wildlife Services, a U.S. Department of Agriculture predator control outfit, Jones gets calls from ranchers all the time, typically involving troublesome coyotes, bobcats or skunks.

But this rancher had a different bone to pick. For some 50 to 75 yards, the dusty road to his home was pockmarked with cavities up to four feet wide. He was sure of the culprit: hogs gone wild.

"I told my wife, 'This guy is smoking something -- there's no hogs in this county!' " Jones recalls, chuckling. "I've caught hogs ever since."

It's not easy. Pigs are among the smartest mammals. Shoot just one hog in a feral group of five, and the remaining four will become even harder to catch -- "super pigs," they're sometimes called. In New Zealand, in an area where aerial gunning was common, feral pigs were seen playing dead in plain sight when a helicopter flew overhead, according to one hog expert. The snipers figured they were casualties of a successful mission. When they circled back, though, most of the "dead" had vanished: Score one for the super pigs.

Jones tries not to create such sharp-witted swine. "I don't want to catch just one," he says. "I want to catch 'em all." He points to a patch on his government uniform: " 'Protecting New Mexico's Resources.' That's what we're doing."

The actual ecological and economic messes feral pigs are making in Quay County -- or any of the 17 New Mexico counties where they're known to live -- remain uncertain. That they're appearing here at all, however, is cause for alarm. They're "one of the worst invasive species on the face of the earth," according to Jack Mayer, a feral pig expert with the Savannah River National Laboratory in South Carolina. Others use similarly blunt terms. "They damage everything," says Richard Engeman of USDA's National Wildlife Research Center. In Texas, where hogs number in the millions, conservative estimates put agricultural losses to hogs at $52 million a year; the environmental damage they cause is not well quantified. And they've become an urban problem as well as a rural one: Golf courses and suburban lawns, it turns out, are suitable hog habitat, too.

Thirty-seven states have established populations, up from 19 in 1990. A handful in the West --  including Arizona, Idaho, Oregon, Colorado -- are just beginning to grapple with the problem. "We're all on the small end of the boat when it comes to numbers," says Justin Stevenson, a ringleader for hog control in New Mexico, and until recently, its USDA wildlife disease biologist. These states have an opportunity that others, such as Texas and California, lost years ago. With sufficient funding, manpower, and perhaps a few new weapons, local or statewide eradication may be feasible -- but possibly not for long.

Rick Strachan
Rick Strachan Subscriber
Aug 29, 2011 02:44 PM
Very interesting article. Why don't you do a comparable one on the Western Canada Goose, a species that some people regard as cuddly, and others, like me, who regard the current goose situation in this country as a prime example of everything that could possibly go wrong in species intervention going very wrong quickly.
Martin Hagen
Martin Hagen Subscriber
Sep 07, 2011 01:30 PM
This article coupled with an article I read not to long ago about the inherant danger in eliminating large predators in a region (the lion in Africa) creating economic hardship fit so well together. The implications are fascinating and ominous. We eliminate the large predators, i.e. wolves, and mesopredators (the next level of predator coyote, fox, skunk, ect...) takes it's place. Mother nature hates a void. These animals can potentially cause more economic chaos than the wolf. Enter the feral hog with no natural predators and we end up paying the bill and suffering the consiquences of our actions by wiping out the most effective (both biologic and economic) control of an invasive spiecies, the top dog.
Rick Strachan
Rick Strachan Subscriber
Sep 07, 2011 01:46 PM
I completely agree with this. I often tell people that a quick and dirty way to measure the health of an ecosystem is to examine the state of the large predators in the system.If they're doing well, one can hypothesize fairly safely and generally that the supporting components that keep the large predators doing well are also doing well, and so on down the line. Here at home, the San Juan Islands of Washington State seem to the casual eye to be a very beautiful place, but there are no large terrestrial predators here except for the automobile. No wolves, no coyotes, no large cats, no nothing.The islands are smothered in introduced rabbits and squirrels, resident Canada geese, dime store turtles and bullfrogs set loose by kids no longer interested, and invasive fresh water fish like the bluegill. Out of control, and a lot of people love it that way..