Lowndes WMA tries to root out feral hog problem

Published 4:00 pm Monday, February 9, 2009

Chris Jaworowski has witnessed first hand how a feral hog situation can get out of hand in a hurry.

Jaworowski, Area Wildlife Biologist for the Lowndes Wildlife Management Area, saw two feral hogs when he started his career at Lowndes in 1997. The next year, he saw between 50 and 60 hogs.

“By the third year, they had pretty much taken over a 5,000-acre tract,” Jaworowski said of the 11,124-acre WMA in central Alabama. “Supposedly, our hogs came from an intentional release by a neighboring landowner in the early 1990s. Those 10 hogs have multiplied exponentially.”

The hogs first showed up in the White Hall area south of County Road 40, a parcel of land from the Tennessee-Tombigbee mitigation program that required the agricultural fields be returned to hardwoods. Those fields were planted in hardwoods, and the remainder of the property is primarily bottomland hardwood with an understory of palmetto.

“It’s very thick habitat,” Jaworowski said. “Unfortunately, that makes it very easy for the hogs to hide. There are plenty of hogs on Lowndes, but that doesn’t make them easy to harvest. Hogs have an uncanny ability to get down in those impenetrable, dense swamps where few hunters want to go. So it’s not an easy hunt and offers a big challenge for the hunters. But they’re great table fare and a lot of fun to hunt.”

Jaworowski said he knew when a neighboring landowner lost over 200 acres of corn in one year to crop depredation by hogs, it was going to take a concentrated effort to keep the animals in check.

Feral hogs present a double whammy for those who try to control their population – hogs are prolific breeders and they have few natural predators.

“What’s amazing about hogs is the reproductive capability,” said Jaworowski, who has made feral hogs presentations to wildlife-related groups around the nation. “If you start with two boars and two sows, they’ll have two litters a year, but three in 14 months. Their litter size ranges anywhere from four to 14 with an average of six to eight. So if you started with two boars and two sows with six piglets in each litter with a 50-50 sex ratio, how many would you have in three years? You do the math and you end up with 16,000 pigs. The bad thing is that number increases exponentially every six months. Feral hogs become sexually mature at six months of age. So every six months, that number will go up by a factor of four. Of course, that’s with no mortality at all. There is some natural mortality on the hogs, but not enough to have an effect. And six in a litter is a very conservative estimate.

“Very few natural predators will tackle a hog. More often than not, it’s something grabbing a piglet or a hog dying from natural causes. From what we’ve seen, the natural mortality is not that high. Without man going out and trying to control these things, they’re basically going to keep reproducing and keep spreading across the state.”

Jaworowski said the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that feral hogs are doing more than $800 million of agricultural damage annually in the United States.

By the year 2000, Lowndes WMA had to begin a serious control project. The hogs are trapped all summer long, and hunters are encouraged to harvest hogs on the management area. Every hog trapped on the area is humanely euthanized and given to families that need the meat for food.

“We basically allow people to hunt hogs during any other open season on the area, using the weapons and ammunition approved for those hunts,” Jaworowski said. “So we basically have a hog season from early August all the way through February and during turkey season when hunters are out on the area.”

Jaworowski said the most effective way to control hogs is through live trapping – setting up large corral traps baited with corn topped with molasses. The traps are 4 feet by 8 feet and 4 feet by 16 feet with horse panel (heavy duty galvanized wire fence) and inch-and-a-half angle iron posts.

Not only is crop depredation a major problem, hogs are also just as destructive on the native habitat, competing for food with every game species in the woods – deer, rabbits, turkeys, bobwhite quail, etc.

“They’re eating all the food that our native species need to make it through the winter,” Jaworowski said. “They’re omnivores. If they can get their mouths on it, they’ll eat it. Their primary food sources are tubers, earthworms, grubs and your mast crops – hard and soft mast like acorns, persimmons, and crabapples. Everything that we as hunters do to make our places more beneficial to native wildlife, your hogs will consume those same resources.

“Not only does consuming the resources cause a problem, but the aggressive rooting they do in the fields can be murder on equipment.”

Jaworowski said people don’t realize the veritable Pandora’s Box they are opening when they intentionally trap and relocate hogs to virgin territory.

“Whether it’s the high prices of leases or the price of travel, people don’t want to drive 300 miles to go hog hunting,” he said. “So people, who don’t know the amount of damage they’re bringing to their property, release these hogs. In a few years, every landowner in the area has feral hogs.

“Education is the key. We’ve got to teach people that trapping these things and moving them into new areas is going to cause nothing but destruction – destruction to agriculture and even road systems. I’ve got roads with four inches of gravel, and they’ll root through the gravel to get the grubs and earthworms below them.

People just don’t understand how destructive these animals are.”

Jaworowski this year will help conduct a series of hog control seminars, which will cover basic biology, reproduction and different control methods. Demonstrations will be made on the different trap types, how to set them, baiting and pre-baiting traps to get the hogs accustomed to the trap before the trap is set.

The seminars are set for Feb. 26 at the AAES Wiregrass Center, 167, East AL Highway 134 in Headland; March 4 at 5 Rivers Delta Center, 30945 Five Rivers Blvd. in Spanish Fort; March 12 at Southern Sportsman Lodge, 9022 U.S. Highway 80 West in Tyler; and March 20 at Belk Activity Center, 2101 Bowers Park Drive in Tuscaloosa. Cost is $10 per person. Call 334-844-1010 to register.

A special feral hog hunt is scheduled for March 1-10 at Lowndes WMA. A hunting license, management area permit, and management area license are required when hunting on management areas.

“You can say we use every control method possible,” Jaworowski said. “We’re going to try everything we can, within reason, to get rid of these things. They’re destroying the property and hurting the native wildlife. We don’t want these things on the property.”