Coming Soon to an Ecosystem Near You?
Contact: Jonathan McKnight, Associate Director for Habitat Conservation for the DNR Wildlife and Heritage Service | JMcKnight@dnr.state.md.us
ANNAPOLIS, MD (December 1, 2009) - In 2004, Chris Griffin shot and killed a big feral hog on a plantation in Alapaha Georgia. He told his friends that it was 12 feet long and weighed 1,000 pounds. Word of the giant hog got out and Griffin became a local celebrity, alternately praised as a mighty hunter and derided as a liar. He carried a grainy photo of the pig with him, the only above-ground record of his quarry. As the story gained national interest, the massive hog (which had been buried whole with a backhoe) would be exhumed, the National Geographic Society would film a documentary about it, and the town of Alapaha would change the theme of its annual fall festival to commemorate its only celebrity in recent memory: Hogzilla. While Maryland has no record of feral swine reproducing in the state, we have documented the presence of two free-ranging pigs, and so the Maryland Invasive Species Council has chosen feral hogs as the December Invader of the Month.
Pigs were among the first domesticated animals ever to be introduced to North America after European discovery. Spanish Conquistador Hernan DeSoto herded hundreds of them from Florida to Mississippi in 1539 to serve as mobile provisions for his soldiers and many of them escaped during the march. In the 19th century, European wild boar were imported and released onto the sporting preserves of the very wealthy where they lent an ‘old world’ flavor to the hunt.
Prior to 1900, it was a common practice to cut distinctive marks into the ears of pigs to signify ownership and turn them loose into swamps or woodlands. The pigs would fend for themselves and in the autumn men could join up for a general round-up and then sort the fattened pigs among their owners. The term “earmark” is derived from this practice and is still associated with pork, although usually of the fiscal variety. In Maryland, the presence of weeds like wild garlic in the interiors of large southern Maryland swamps like the Gilbert and Zekiah may be the legacy of this practice - and the devastating forest floor disturbance grubbing pigs cause - still evident after more than a hundred years.
Today there are estimated to be about four million feral swine in the United States – a million of them in Texas alone. There are about sixty million domestic swine in the US, and Americans have a long history with pigs. We eat an average of fifty pounds of pork per person every year. Feral swine are a popular hunting quarry and you can understand why hunters might get excited about hunting something that would yield bacon, hams, and succulent chops. Unfortunately, feral swine, unless they are taken very young, are simply not worth eating. Hogzilla ended up in a hole because even its backstraps were unfit to eat.
Wild (feral) swine destroy crops, degrade natural ecosystems, and stunt forestry operations. They spread disease, reduce habitat carrying capacity for game species, and attack people and pets. Woodlands that have been scoured by feral swine have bare dirt floors instead of a healthy understory. Yet they are not without their promoters. In much of the southeast and as far west as Texas feral swine hunting is both a popular sport and big business. The cachet of hunting “wild boar” attracts hunters to specialized preserves where feral hogs are hunted with bows, rifles, spears, and dogs. A few Maryland hunters have wondered whether it might be nice to have a new game species – and who doesn’t like bacon?
It’s worthwhile noting that at the same time when European boar were being imported to the US, thousands of European carp were being stocked in American lakes and rivers because they were thought to be ‘better’ than our native fishes. The resulting freshwater habitat degradation has been catastrophic. Hunters and conservationists who value whitetail deer, wild turkey, black bear, and other native forest game would be well advised to keep feral hogs out of their woods. Trophy whitetail, with which Maryland has been very well endowed, are a product of prime habitat. Wild pigs would degrade the habitat for deer and every other wild species in Maryland.
Although two free-ranging swine have been documented in Maryland, we have no known reproducing population in the State. Time will tell if feral hogs will continue their population expansion north into Maryland. Virginia, West Virginia and Ohio all have established, reproducing populations. Pennsylvania has too many rumored sightings to be swine-free. Maryland’s hunters can be the first line of defense against the threat of feral swine. Hunters know our fields and woodlands and spend their precious free hours there. If you see a feral hog in Maryland, kill it - and let DNR know. The sooner we know of a localized population of feral swine, the easier it will be to eliminate it.
Is it legal to shoot feral swine in Maryland? Yes. Because wild swine are the same species as domestic pigs, there is no biological basis for determining whether a given animal is feral. If you know or have reason to believe that a hog is a temporary runaway from your neighbor’s hog farm, you should not kill that pig. Otherwise, if you own or have permission to hunt a property or you are hunting on public lands, please take that animal and call DNR.
For more information about this and other Invasive Species of Concern, visit www.mdinvasivesp.org
photos available electronically on request.