In the wake of several mass shootings across the nation, American Twitter users turned suffering into comedy when user William McNabb decided to defend civilian ownership of assault weapons with a hypothetical about protecting his children from “30-50 feral hogs” with an assault rifle.
A meme was born and we all had a good laugh about a patently ridiculous argument, but McNabb’s scenario has a kernel of truth to it: The planet, and America in particular, has a feral hog problem. However, there are numerous ways to deal with the issue of wild hogs, and assault rifles aren’t one of them. In many ways, shooting hogs is exacerbating the problem.
Christopher Columbus first brought pigs to America in the 1500s. Since then, the wild hog population has spread across the continent. The United States Department of Agriculture began tracking the feral pig population in 1982, when the beasts were contained to portions of Texas, Florida, and swaths of California. As of 2018, the population has exploded to more than six million wild hogs rutting in 39 states.
The typical boar can weigh between 40 and 200 pounds, and stand upwards of four feet tall. Even at 40 pounds, a wild boar can gore livestock, destroy crops, and kill people with their tusks. Farmers in Texas described scenes of devastation left behind by wild boars, including five-foot-wide craters that stand three feet deep. In Texas alone, wild hogs do $400 million in damage annually. Researchers in South Carolina told me that wild pigs cause $150 million in damage annually, but they feel the number is low. Farmers in Arkansas have described the pig problem as “World War III.” In 1988, an F-16 collided with two feral hogs on takeoff in Florida. The crash killed the hogs and totaled the $16 million jet.
The reason for the explosive growth of hogs in America is complicated. It’s tied up in changing landscapes due to the growth of the human population, the lack of apex predators, and climate change. Feral pigs are doing so well right now in part because they have a hugely varied diet that can adapt to just about any scenario.
“Hogs are ecological zombies,” Shari L. Rodriguez, a biologist at the University of Clemson in South Carolina, and the co-author of a new PLOS ONE study about the dangers of feral pigs, told me over the phone. “They will eat anything. They will eat ground nesting birds. They will eat deer fawn. They will eat crops. They kill livestock. They will eat endangered salamanders.”
The situation is only getting worse, Rodriguez said, as human encroachment on boar habitats is putting people and wild pigs into closer proximity. Climate change, too, is encouraging pigs to spread across the landscape.
“Climate change is changing the distribution of species,” Rodriguez said. “Species can go in new areas they couldn’t go before. It’s allowing species to expand their range or change their range… hogs tend to go where the water is.” It doesn’t help that feral hogs reproduce “exponentially,” she said.
At the current rates of growth and expansion, culling back the population by 70 percent would still return the wild hog population to full strength in a few years. To deal with the rampaging porcine, federal and state officials are trying everything from poison to lax hunting laws. It’s not working and, in some cases, is grotesque.
Arkansas, South Carolina, Florida, Georgia, and Texas have some of the largest wild hog populations, but it’s frequently Texas that makes headlines every year with ridiculous plans to curb the population. In 2017, Austin passed a bill allowing people to hunt wild hogs from hot air balloons. For around $4,000, a Texas company will fly you around in helicopter so you can hunt hogs with an assault rifle. Another Texas company will take you to hunt swine at night with night vision.
Though officials have encouraged hunting for sport as a way to mitigate the populations of feral hogs in the past, it contributes to their spread. Paying to go up in a helicopter to shoot hogs with an assault rifle isn’t the same as hunting them in their natural habitat, and the reality is that those experiences are highly controlled. The companies providing the pigs often transport them to a new area and set them loose so the “hunter” can kill them en masse. Swine are smart—they escape and spread.
According to Rordiguez, there are better ways to solve America’s hog problem than shooting at them with assault weapons. Pigs are social animals, and they travel in sounders. The goal is whole sounder removal: the destruction or relocation of the entire social group. Anything less just leads to more breeding. “You basically set a big giant corral trap, with a door and a trigger system.”
If the clever hunter can get the entire sounder into the trap and shut the door, it will eliminate the problem. “Some of the research out there suggests that, if you can remove the entire sounder, its territory won’t be taken over by other sounders,” she said. “It’s really complicated, logistically difficult and takes a lot of time, but it is possible to remove the entire sounder.”
Rodriguez isn’t a fan of Texas-style hog hunts. “I just can’t advocate that,” she said. “The effective methods of trapping have been shown, over and over in the literature, to be effective. If you really want to get rid of hogs, that’s the way to go.”
America isn’t alone in dealing with hordes of feral hogs. In 2018, Denmark constructed a wall along its border with Germany specifically to keep out wild boars. Central and Eastern Europe are teeming with radioactive—yes radioactive—wild boars. After the Fukushima nuclear disaster, irradiated wild hogs began to take over abandoned Japanese towns. Wild boars in Hong Kong are leaving decimated forests and coming into town for snacks. Wild boards even killed three Islamic State fighters in 2017.
Not dealing with the feral pig population isn’t an option for many, especially those living in rural areas that abut feral hog habitats. Wild hogs destroy everything they come into contact with, killing and eating livestock and destroying farmlands. However, the solution to this very real problem has more in common with Wile E. Coyote than John Rambo.