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.

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