Feral pigs going hog wild in Hampton Roads

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by Vanessa Coria, 13News Now

WVEC.com

Posted on May 21, 2014 at 11:37 PM

VIRGINIA BEACH -- This little piggy went to the market, this little piggy stayed home, this little piggy escaped its owners, turned feral and made its home right here in Hampton Roads.

Wildlife bilogists are in the midst of a battle with feral hogs.  They're trying to eliminate them in Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge and at False Cape State Park. 

Experts consider them an invasive species that, if not eliminated, could cause you big problems.

Right now, the pigs are confined to the refuge and park, where they continuously tear up marsh land established to protect waterfowl like the American Black Duck, Tundra Swan, Glossy Ibis and many other shore birds.

On a recent visit to Back Bay to learn about efforts to control and even eliminate the feral hog population, there was clear evidence of the pigs.

"That's the pig droppings right there. Yeah, and that's from yesterday," explains Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge biologist John Gallegos.

He's working closely with state biologists to stay on the leading edge of the Commonwealth's wild hog problem. 

A problem Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries biologist Peter Acker says is a growing issue in many southern states.

"They have gotten inudated with hogs and now it's beyond any control. So, we're trying to cut this off before it starts and before it becomes a big issue because when they do get established, they're very hard to get rid of," he says.

One method of getting rid of the hogs is through trapping and humane euthanization. On the refuge and at the state park, biologists have set up about a dozen traps baited with corn.   

They also have a number of trail cameras set up to watch  the pigs.

"Once we determine that this regular pig activity is occuring at a location the waterfowl are depending upon for foods, we set up a trail camera and this trail camera essentially provides us with a frequency of use by the feral hogs. When are they here -- what time of day or night are they here -- that allows us to figure out when we should set up our traps or our control activities to keep this damage from happening," explains Gallegos

Pigs aren't making their homes just in Hampton Roads.

"We do have three established populations -- one in Southwestern Virginia, one in Culpepper and Orange counties and one here at Back Bay and False Cape," Acker notes.  "Each established population would be somewhere in the range of, this one might be the smallest, in the 20 to 50 size. Central Virginia probably has several hundred."

It's the numbers that concern them.  The animals have a proclivity to procreate and with food plentiful this season, population control efforts are not optional. 

"If we weren't doing any control activity at all with them, then the poplulation would rapidly explode," says Gallegos.

Acker adds "They procreate like crazy.  They can reproduce early, at less than a year old.  They can have several litters a year of four to six to eight piglets each litter."

The damage and disease they can spread, if the population grows out of control, could be catasrophic, not only to the habitat at the refuge and state park but also to local farmers and the pork industry. 

"Visualize a pig turning over the ground in a farmer's soy bean field or a corn field. It would be a disaster for that farmer," says Gallegos.

Acker says the pigs carry troublesome diseases that "could drastically, drastically impact the pork industry in this state if a couple of them made their way into the herds of pigs on farms -- it would be a huge impact."

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, "feral swine have been known to carry or transmit over 30 diseases and 37 parasites that can be transmitted to livestock, people, pets and wildlife.

"They also dramatically alter habitat and hurt native species that a lot of people are concerned about, our agencies included," says Acker.

When the feral hogs attempt to eat the corn in the traps, they trip a taut string, which runs across the width of the cage, it brings a gate down, trapping them inside.  The animals are then euthanized.

Each October, hog permits are available during deer season, but experts say hunting is not the preferred method of eliminating the pig population.

"Hunters will kill a few here and there, but it's not a way that we can put a big dent in a population," says Acker.

How did these pigs became a problem in the first place?  

"A lot of the problem has come from accidental releases, but most of it has been due to people releasing pigs, on purpose, in order to establish a huntable population. And it's something, it's illegal, but also we really want to discourage it, because of all the damage they can do and because of how hard they are to get rid of, once they are established," Acker states.

You are encouraged to call the Virginia Wildlife Conflict Helpline at 1-855-571-9003 if you see feral hogs or think a population is getting established. 

Click here for a look at a Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries powerpoint presentation on the Feral Hog problem.

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