“This is a nightmare in the making," says Ron Jones, Wildlife Specialist for the Wildlife Services Division of the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal, Plant, Health Inspection Service (APHIS) in Tucumcari. “And we have a very slim window of opportunity to get a handle on this.”
Jones works on the front lines for the lead agency in the battle against the invasion of wild hogs.
“And our biggest problem right now is a lack of manpower and money,” Jones says.
The problem in New Mexico has grown from the discovery of a single incidence of wild hogs found in Quay county in 2006 to multiple confirmed cases in 12 eastside counties and three other counties in the Boot Heel region of the southwest corner of the state.
|Wild hogs grow large, are aggressive and look like a domestic pig gone wild.|
Those hogs inhabiting the Boot Heel region are thought to be remnants of a longtime herd of escaped or released domestic pigs while most of those found on the eastside are thought to have been intentionally brought in and released for hunting purposes, Jones says.
Most feral swine are descendants of escaped or intentionally released domestic pigs while some thought to have come from wild boars that escaped from game parks.
Hog hunting has become a popular pursuit in New Mexico due to its lack of a season, requirement of a license and the unlimited harvest allowed.
But in an effort to stem the growth of the sport and its associated problems the state legislature in 2009 passed a law making it illegal in New Mexico to import, hold, release or sell feral hogs or operate a commercial wild hog hunt.
Wild hogs are not be confused with Javelinas, a native game animal, the hunting of which is regulated by the state Department of Game and Fish (NMDGF).
Adult Javelinas are much smaller, have straight not curved tusks and sport a white collar around the neck.
|A Javelina is much smaller than a wild pig and is a regulated game animal.|
And while some of New Mexico’s wild hogs are thought to have migrated into the state along the Pecos and Canadian river corridors from Texas, it has been their importation into the state for hunting that has really fueled their growth here, Jones says.
“These folks apparently don’t care about the damage they’re causing,” Jones says.
Texas is home to an estimated 2.5 million wild hogs that cause an estimated $52 million dollars in agricultural crop and related damage each year, according to Texas A& M research results.
Nationally the feral swine population has grown to an estimated 5 million in 35 states and they are estimated to cause about a $1 billion in damage each year, according to USDA APHIS data.
Thus hunting as a management tool has proven to be almost inconsequential in reducing their numbers, Jones says.
Wild hogs present many threats and their destruction of agricultural crops, predation of newborn livestock such as lambs and their capacity to uproot fields is well documented on websites such as Texas A&M’s found at http://feralhogs.tamu.edu/.
But it may be their potential to damage wildlife habitat, contaminate water supplies, spread disease and displace wildlife due to competition for natural resources that may be even more pressing for an outdoor recreational Mecca such as New Mexico.
“Habitat damage may be the bigger issue for us,” says Darrel Weybright, Acting Chief of the NMDGF’s Wildlife Management Division.
Weybright characterized wild pigs as being the new kids on the block competing with already established native wildlife populations for limited resources.
For example deer and bears rely heavily on acorn crops as a food base in New Mexico and wild hogs are known to have a strong preference for utilizing that same food source.
Hogs prefer acorns to the point that once they have depleted any source above ground they will then root out underground caches stashed by ground squirrels, pack rats and other animals.
|Rooting effect of wild hogs.|
“So we certainly need to get moving on this and be smart about our approach in dealing with it,” he says.
Wild hogs have also been shown to carry numerous diseases, not the least of which is Pseudorabies, an affliction that can be transmitted through casual contact such as the simple touching of noses, says Jones, the federal wildlife specialist.
Consider the implications to wildlife if predators such as a pack of coyotes were to attack and kill an infected pig and then contract and spread the fatal disease, Jones says.
Over half the wild hogs killed during an eradication operation by wildlife specialists in Quay County in 2009, about 20, resulted in positive test for pseudo rabies, Jones said.
Jones questions whether the same scenario could also apply to other predators too such as bears, mountain lions and foxes that may also prey upon wild pigs, Jones says.
And the same disease transmission potential exists with livestock which feral swine come into regular contact while utilizing the same water and feed sources, Jones says.
“We’ve spent millions of dollars and over 20 years to become free if that,” he says. “We can’t afford to jeopardize all that work.”
Wild hogs are also notorious opportunists that prey upon newborn lambs, calves and even their vulnerable mothers which should be of particular concern to farmers and ranchers.
Calls to the Caren Cowan, Executive Director of the New Mexico Cattlegrowers Association seeking comment about the industry’s efforts to combat wild hogs were not returned. Nor were those made to the New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau.
Domestic livestock are not the only animals in nature that need to fear the influx of wild hogs.
Research has shown that the diet of wild hogs is heavily augmented - up to 60-percent- by the consumption of all sorts of wild animals including frogs, lizards, snakes, birds and their eggs and even deer fawn.
In one study at Fort Benning Ga. the stomach contents of one wild hog revealed 49 spade-foot toads that had been consumed in a single feeding.
|A spade-foot toad.|
Of particular concern in New Mexico is the fate of endangered or threatened species such as the sand dune lizard in southeastern New Mexico where wild hogs inhabit 100-percent of the lizards’ habitat.
Of equal concern to those worried about the degradation of wildlife habitat is the spread of invasive noxious weeds that comes with the invasion of wild pigs.
Wild hogs are a crafty breed, says Tom Dominguez, the Quay County Extension Agent for New Mexico State University’s Cooperative Extension Service.
For instance, they need to wallow in mud to cool their bodies and fend off insects bites and they following account illustrate how far they’ll go to achieve that goal.
A rancher recounted to Dominquez recently about how he kept finding one of his stock tanks running over but couldn’t determine the cause.
|New Mexico's east side has become a haven for wild hogs.|
So the rancher hid and waited and soon saw a herd of pigs arrive.
Then he watched in amazement as one of the lead pigs climbed into the stock tank and found and held down on the tank float to keep the water flowing to create a wallow pit.
“They’re pretty innovative,” Dominguez said.
But snared within a wild pigs’ matted hair might be any number of invasive seed pods like the pesky Cocklebur, a plant which can be poisonous to livestock and horses.
Pigs wallow in the mud and coat the attached burs in a nutrient rich, fertile casing which then falls off while the pig roots, wallows or rubs against trees, one of their favorite activities.
Jones, the federal wildlife specialist, has documented where pigs had extensively rooted through pastures in search of grubs, tubers and earthworms. He then went back later to find the same pastures had grown over with weeds.
And in some cases these pastures may never return to their native state, Jones speculated.
Pigs also eat the seeds of many unwanted rangeland plants such as Mesquite trees and Cholla cactus. Some of those seeds are then passed whole in the pig’s feces and later sprout to further spread those plants reach.
|Ron Jones, Wildlife Specialist for the Wildlife Services Division of the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal, Plant, Health Inspection Service (APHIS).|
And yet another threat wild pigs pose to wildlife and humans is the contamination of water sources such riparian areas, stock tanks and even municipal water supplies.
Wild hogs have been tested positive for carrying the potentially fatal strain of E-coli and were implicated in the notorious California spinach food poisoning case of 2006.
They have been found to carry the worst waterborne pathogens including Campylobacter, Salmonella, Cryptosporidium and Giardia.
And while wild pigs are incredibly adaptable, the one constant they must have is water.
Their frequent use many of the same watering sites as livestock, wildlife and even human water sources is a recipe for disaster due to the potential for disease transmission, Jones says.
“We’ve got a real problem on our hands here,” Jones warns.
WHAT CAN BE DONE:
It’s an early December morning and Jones is driving down a muddy ranch road heading for a high spot overlooking a canyon where he hopes to pick up a radio signal from one of his “Judas Pigs.”
“It’s one of the best tools we have,” Jones says as he bounces across a pasture and pull to stop on a butte overlooking a wide valley floor.
Jones pulls out what looks like an arm off a rooftop, television antennae and turns on the handset.
“Nothing” he mumbles before explaining how he suspects a hunter he had talked to recently had apparently gotten into the herd of wild pigs Jones had been tracking.
He was concerned that his Judas Pig had been killed and the $200 radio transmitter attached to it had been destroyed.
Wild hogs typically run in groups called “sounders” containing anywhere from 10 to 20 pigs and lead by a dominate female while male “boars” usually roam alone until visiting a sounder for mating purposes.
|A corral cage with spring loaded saloon style doors to trap entire groups of wild hogs at one time.|
Her mates are euthanized but the Judas Pig is then released with an attached transmitter to find another group of wild pigs to run with.
Being highly social animals, the Judas Pig should lead Jones to her new group soon.
It is a very effective way for Jones and his colleagues to find and eliminate large groups of pigs in a single outing.
The end usually comes from above in the form of automatic shotgun wielding shooters riding in low flying airplane.
Jones, armed with his radio antenna directs the shooters from the ground and the work is usually done in just a few minutes.
|Ron Jones searches for a Judas Pig using radio telemetry.|
Last year such efforts resulted in the elimination of over 135 wild hogs with 46 taken in two aerial hunts lasting about 30-minutes thanks to the use of “Judas Pigs,” Jones says. The rest had to be trapped.
But Jones a professional hunter with 25 years experience working for the federal government’s Wildlife Services knows there are many more out there.
“It’s going to take a coordinated effort and everyone’s cooperation to get a handle on this,” Jones said.
Jones is just one of 28 federal wildlife specialists working across the state to responsibly handle and reduce conflicts between wildlife and humans.
And while in years past Jones spent much of his time dealing with nuisance coyotes, raccoons or skunks, since his discovery of wild hogs near Tucumcari back in 2006 he’s been working almost full time on nothing but feral swine.
|Coyotes play an important role in ecosystem and most should be shot only through a camera lens.|
Thus Jones has worked hard to learn their traits and develop strategies for dealing with wild hogs in an effort to limit their expansion in New Mexico.
Jones and other wildlife specialists can now provide ranchers, landowners and public lands managers with plans for building cost effective traps to catch wild hogs and other assistance as needed.
|A low cost trap for catching a limited number of wild hogs.|
“We need to get busy if we want to nip this in the bud,” Jones says.
For more information about the wild hog situation read the Eradication Plan (Text Only) and if more assistance is needed contact the APHIS’ New Mexico Office of Wildlife Services in Albuquerque at (505) 346-2640.
Hunting Wild Hogs:
Wild hog hunting in New Mexico can be a challenging and rewarding experience that also helps protect wildlife and the environment.
Wild hogs are a non-game, destructive, invasive species and as such are not subject to regulation and oversight by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish.
There is no hunting license required for state residents, there’s no season and no bag limit, says Rick Winslow, Large Carnivore and Furbearer Biologist for NMDGF.
But out-of-state hunters will need a non-game license with an appropriate habitat stamp, he says.
Those interested in hunting wild hogs should arm themselves with a 30-caliber or larger firearm to safely and humanely dispatch these animals which can grow to 400 pounds or more, he says.
The male boars make for good mounts due to their large tusks and ferocious appearance while the sows and younger pigs make for good eating, producing plenty of chops, hams and tasty ribs, says Winslow who hunts them himself.
When handling wild hog carcasses hunters should exercise precautions to avoid direct exposure to body fluids and potential disease by wearing rubber gloves and perhaps a neckerchief when gutting and butchering a pig.
Meat for consumption should be thoroughly cooked to kill potentially deadly diseases such as trichinosis which most wild hogs carry, Winslow says.
Finding pigs to hunt is easy, Winslow says.
“Just look for the nastiest, thickest, hardest place to get to and that’s where they’ll be,” he says.
|Ron Jones surveys an arroyo outside of Tucumcari where pigs tracks were found.|
Wild hogs are smart, wary and adept at avoiding humans but they need water on a daily basis.
Thus wild hogs, who leave tracks similar to deer, can usually be caught coming or going from any number of water sources usually around dawn or dusk, Winslow advises.
Hunting is prohibited regardless of the species a half hour before or after dawn or dusk and the use of artificial light in New Mexico is strictly prohibited, Winslow said.
Wild hogs can be found throughout the entire east side of the state especially along the Pecos and Canadian river basins but permission is required to hunt on most of the private land found there.
Contact a local county extension agent or farm or ranch association for possible leads to private land owners that may allow wild hog hunting.
Public lands agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management and the National Forest Service could provide leads.
For instance the Lincoln National Forest harbors wild hogs and hunters can find more information about where, including maps, on their website at http://www.fs.usda.gov/main/lincoln/home.
This story was commissioned by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish for its own publication "New Mexico Wildlife" and first appeared in its Winter 2011/2012 edition and can be seen in that format, online, at http://www.wildlife.state.nm.us/publications/documents/NM_Wildlife/archives/NMW_winter2011-12_opt.pdf