Hog Hunting Mired in Bureaucracy
By Brian McCombie
State Game Agencies and Public Hunting Regulations Discourage More Hog Hunting—Even as Wild Hogs Are Cited as a Huge Problem!
Hearing reports of feral, free-ranging hogs many miles south of his home in Illinois, longtime hunter and NRA member Dave Wiehle did what many hunters would do: He called his state game agency to get more information, thinking the hogs could be a good hunting opportunity. He talked to a biologist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
“I told him my friends and I were qualified, experienced hunters,” says Wiehle, “and that we were wondering about locations of these hogs. He told me, ‘Hunting them is not the answer. You just disperse the animals and make it harder to control them.’”
The biologist also declined to provide the locations of these hogs.
Wiehle was upset with that response and a little confused. Why wouldn’t the DNR want hunters to kill as many hogs as possible? After all, Illinois media reports have feral hogs steadily expanding their range in the state, with Illinois wildlife and agricultural officials warning of dire consequences should hogs gain a strong foothold there.
Unfortunately, Wiehle’s experience isn’t unique. Across the country, feral hog problems are growing, with state officials bemoaning the very real damage hogs do to wildlife habitats and agricultural operations. At the same time, many of these same officials actually discourage hog hunting, while state laws frequently set up roadblocks to hunters taking feral hogs on public lands.
At the Bankhead National Forest (BNF) in northern Alabama, feral hogs are a big problem—and the problem’s getting worse, with hog populations surging in the last decade.
The hogs compete with native wildlife, including deer, turkeys and quail, notes BNF wildlife biologist Allison Cochran. Often, the hogs even outcompete native wildlife for food sources, vacuuming up acorns and other mast crops with their long, hard snouts. The hogs dig up the ground in search of roots and tubers, and in the process can destroy important habitats for game species. They are a real threat to endangered species at the BNF, too, especially aquatic wildlife like freshwater mussels living in the streams the hogs love to wallow in, tearing up stream bottoms and knocking stream banks into the water.
“In the general forest, there’s no closed season on feral hogs,” says Cochran. “We encourage hunters to kill them, using whatever means are legal in the state of Alabama.”
Ironically, though, in the one area of the BNF experiencing the most hog damage, hog hunting is much more limited.
Managed by the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the Black Warrior Wildlife Management Area (WMA) is a 91,000-acre section within the larger 182,000 acres of the Bankhead. Here, as in WMA’s throughout Alabama, hog hunting is limited to: special two-week hog hunt seasons in March and September; and during other legal WMA hunting seasons.
While that opens up the Black Warrior WMA to hog hunting all of the fall and during spring turkey season, it also means you can’t hunt hogs here for most of January, all of February, and from May through the end of August. Essentially, hog hunting is off limits for nearly half the year.
If you want to hog hunt during a scheduled hunting season, you can only use the weapons allowed during that season. During spring turkey, for example, you have to use a shotgun to take a hog—with an appropriate turkey shell—as slugs and buckshot are not legal turkey loads. Your centerfire rifle? Not a legal turkey weapon, so leave it home.
The situation is the same for hogs and hog hunting on public hunting lands in Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.
Talk to employees at state agencies around the nation on this issue, and you quickly realize they are all reciting from pretty much the same script. It reads like this:
We want hogs “eradicated” not hunted;
We don’t encourage hunting, as it might lead to unscrupulous people releasing hogs to create hunting opportunities;
Hunting doesn’t control hog populations, anyway, it just gets in the way of our control efforts;
But we’d like hunters to take a hog or two while they’re deer hunting.
“On the surface, it doesn’t seem logical that we don’t really promote hog hunting,” admits Chad Soard, a wildlife biologist with the Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife Resources’ Captive Wildlife & Wild Pig Programs. “But hunting, even intensive hunting, doesn’t really control pig populations.”
Soard says that to knock back a local population of feral hogs, you have to kill off 70 percent of that population the first year, “just to stabilize their numbers.” That needs to be followed up with similar kill levels in future years to begin the process of eradication.
Hunters, Soard argues, often come to hog hunting with a conservationist frame of mind, too, looking to take a trophy animal while passing over females and smaller hogs. However, it’s precisely these females and smaller hogs (shoats) that need to be taken to truly reduce hog numbers.
Much of what Soard says may be true. But what do Soard and other officials interviewed for this article all gloss over? These same state agencies have made minimal efforts at best to enlist hunter help in controlling wild hog numbers. In state after state, this writer could find little to no educational effort being made to really inform hunters of the many negative conservation implications from expanding feral hog populations. An annual press release that says, “Deer hunters, make sure you kill any feral hogs you see this season—they can be a real problem!” doesn’t really get it.
Hunters have a long history of answering the conservation call, and many would be willing to help in this case.
Admittedly, when hog numbers get too high, hunting isn’t going to instantly reduce populations to manageable levels. Think Texas and Florida, where estimates are of 3 million and 1 million wild porkers, respectively.
Yet, states like Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky and Missouri are just beginning to see a ramping up of hog numbers that could lead to much, much larger problems. For example, Soard notes that, from two smaller populations found along the border with Tennessee, Kentucky now has hogs in 13 counties. The good news is the actual numbers are small, and while the hogs are reproducing, the groups are isolated from each other. Encouraging hog hunting, within the context of other control efforts, could remove many hogs.
Missouri has between 5,000 and 10,000 feral hogs. Maybe half or better of those are found in the Mark Twain National Forest (MTNF), which allows (but doesn’t encourage) hog hunting on its property 365 days a year, with guns, bows and dogs.
When this writer sent an e-mail to MTNF biologist Larry Furniss asking about hog hunting opportunities on forest properties, the first sentence of his e-mail reply read:
“The Missouri Department of Conservation, the Mark Twain National Forest, and many other Federal and State agencies discourage anyone from hunting specifically for feral hogs in the State of Missouri because hunters’ activities interfere with efforts to eradicate this non-native invasive species. However, ‘If you are afield for other game and encounter a feral hog, you are encouraged to shoot the feral hog on sight!’”
So hunters are good enough to shoot hogs “on sight!” (the quote in Furniss’ e-mail is from a Missouri Department of Conservation press release, by the way) if the hogs are seen more or less accidently, but Missouri hunters shouldn’t think about going afield specifically for hogs? That’s a troubling attitude—and counter-productive, as hunting can in fact have a real effect on local hog numbers, if hunters are actively engaged.
Consider Wisconsin. Officials with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) discovered a small but growing population of feral hogs in Jackson County in 2005. So the DNR alerted local hunters to the situation, informed them of the damage to the landscape these hogs could do, and encouraged them to shoot any and all hogs they saw.
“Those were small populations that were pretty quickly shot out by hunters and landowners,” says DNR wildlife ecologist Brad Koele.
Wisconsin also has a small but self-sustaining population of feral pigs in Crawford County that got started when someone released feral hogs there many years ago. DNR-sanctioned trapping is on-going, but the DNR also very much relies on hunters for help.
“The hunting pressure on those pigs [in Crawford County] has been pretty good,” Koele notes, “so that’s kept those numbers down.”
No one’s saying that hunting is the only way these destructive hogs should be controlled. And hunters may well have to alter some of their conservation-minded attitudes when it comes to hogs which, after all, are an invasive species. Even though the state officials I talked with all insist that trapping is the best way to control hogs, the truth is trapping hasn’t gotten rid of the pigs, either.
Instead of making it harder for hunters to have access to hog hunting on public lands, and then insisting that hunting can’t kill off enough pigs, maybe state game agencies could do themselves a favor by embracing hunting as an important means of keeping hog numbers in check. Yet, a number of these agencies, reading from that same tired script, have decided that hunting is not an answer, and they must have hog “eradication” or nothing. That these same agencies keep getting “nothing” doesn’t appear to concern them.
At this point, many game agencies seem unwilling to embrace hunters and hunting as a viable control method, so it may be up to hunters to demand more hog hunting opportunities in their states and to push their elected representatives to make it happen.
No Public Hog Hunting in the Land of Lincoln
Hearing of Dave Wiehle’s problems getting basic information about hog hunting in his home state of Illinois, this writer got to wondering: What are the regulations there? Turns out, just finding that information is a real barrier to hunting and hunters.
A search of the Illinois DNR’s website using the term, “feral hogs,” retrieves many documents, but none on hunting regulations. A press release on feral swine from November 2011 does have this sentence: “Anyone with a firearm and a firearm owner’s identification card can shoot feral swine with permission of the landowner.”
On page 14 of the online version of the Illinois Digest of Hunting and Trapping Regulations 2012 – 2013 there is a section entitled, “Feral Swine Are Detrimental to Illinois.” Yet, in 184 words, the section never explains what the regulations are for hunting these terribly destructive animals on either private or public lands.
In fact, the only time the word “hunting” is even used here is to argue that it is, “impossible to control [wild hogs] with hunting alone…”
I then called the Illinois DNR’s media office and left a message. Later that same day, John Buhnerkempe, the agency’s chief of the wildlife resources division, returned my call. He confirmed that hog hunting was legal on private lands, with landowner permission and as long as state firearm laws were followed. However, hog hunting is not allowed on state-owned and -managed lands in Illinois. Buhnerkempe said his staff hasn’t had the time to actually write these regulations, though he hinted it could happen within the year.
But, I asked, why no mention of any of this in the hunting regulations? Why no explanation that hog hunting is legal on private lands?
“We’re really not trying to encourage hog hunting at this time,” he said, adding that hunting might disperse hogs and the DNR doesn’t want to “compound the problem.”
Apparently, the script entitled, “We Don’t Want to Encourage Hog Hunting!” is being circulated in the Land of Lincoln, too.