Feral hogs bring damage, disease to Currituck’s Outer Banks

By on November 13, 2017

Feral hogs have become a wide-spread problem in Corolla, Carova and the rest of the U.S. (USDA Wildlife Services)

The wild horses on Currituck’s northern beaches are the county’s top attraction, a favorite of visitors who trek to Corolla and Carova every summer for a chance to catch sight of them.

But another wild creature that forages in the woods and along the shorelines of the county’s northern beaches likely isn’t anyone’s favorite, with the possible exception of the hunters who brought most of them there in the first place.

Feral hogs, with their sharp tusks, aggressive behavior and insatiable appetite for roots and tubers, persist in the off-road area of Currituck’s northern beaches, despite efforts to eradicate them.

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The USDA Wildlife Services Division has tried trapping the hogs, hunting them from the air by way of a sharpshooter in a low-flying helicopter, and shooting them from deer stands, which has reduced the number of hogs — at least temporarily.

“Hunting” isn’t an accurate word to describe the work of the division, said Keith Wehner, North Carolina state director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services division.

“Our goal is not to hunt them at all. It’s to eliminate them,” Wehner said. But  that goal has been as elusive as the hogs themselves, which are rarely seen by people who live, work or visit the areas around Corolla and Carova.

Meg Puckett, herd manager for the Corolla Wild Horse Fund, said she’s never seen a feral hog, although she is very familiar with the widespread ecological damage caused by the roaming bands of pigs, which will devour almost any type of vegetation.

The wild horse fund is the official nonprofit charged with protecting and preserving the free-roaming Spanish mustangs in Corolla and points north to the Virginia line.

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“Hogs root, so when they dig up the earth along the marsh, it can cause erosion and pretty bad degradation of the land that they’re on,” Puckett said.

The evidence is unmistakable.

“It’s like a rototiller going through there, digging up native roots and tubers, allowing invasive species to come in,” Wehner said. “They go around consuming everything in their path.”

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In addition to competing with the wild horses for food, there have also been instances of horses being injured. Although there’s no concrete evidence linking the horses’ injuries to wild hogs, one horse may have been gored, based on the size and location of a wound to its belly.

“We suspect that there have been injuries from feral hogs,” Puckett said.

However, the wild hogs’ greatest threat to the wild horses is disease transmission, Wehner said. Feral hogs carry numerous diseases and parasites that can cause serious illness or death for humans and wild and domestic animals.

They frequently carry pseudo-rabies, which can kill dogs and other animals, along with brucellosis, a highly contagious disease that can affect both humans and animals and is a major threat to the nation’s pork industry.

The USDA received funding in 2014 to target North Carolina’s feral hog population, and because of the threat to the wild mustangs from feral hog-borne diseases, the Carova area was a high priority, Wehner said.

Corral pens allow wildlife officers to collect entire family groups of hogs. (USDA Wildlife Services)

The USDA Wildlife Service has been trapping and shooting feral hogs in the Carova area for the past three years. Corral traps are the most common method of removing feral hogs, as they enable wildlife officers to collect an entire family group. But if one hog figures out what happens, it won’t return to a corral.

“It’s amazing how smart they are,” Wehner said. “That’s when we resort to a tree stand.”

North Carolina now has a relatively new tool to battle the feral swine population — aerial gunning. The 2016 North Carolina Farm Act allows hogs to be culled from the air, provided they are shot by wildlife control officers.

“We’ve been using helicopters for 20 years, but it’s new to North Carolina,” Wehner said. “We know that it works in marshy, coastal properties.”

Carova was one of the starting areas for aerial gunning in the state. This year, wildlife officers have killed 53 pigs in the area — 33 using conventional methods and 20 through aerial gunning in the spring.

“We’re relatively close to eliminating that whole population,” Wehner said. “But it only takes one guy with a trailer to change that.”

Most feral hogs aren’t escapees from local farms. Instead, they’ve been brought in by people who turn them loose for a hunting opportunity, Wehner explained.

For more information about the expansion of wild pigs, Wehner recommends a YouTube video “A Pickup Load of Pigs: The Feral Swine Pandemic,” a three-part series put out by the University of Mississippi to educate the public about feral swine.

Even a few hogs can result in a population boom, which may explain the difference in opinions on whether they are close to being eradicated.

Sows give birth to eight to 12 piglets at a time, and have a litter about every six to eight months, Wehner said. “It’s not uncommon to see eight to 12 piglets with a given sow,” he added.

He estimates the Carova area’s current feral pig population to be between five and 25 pigs, a number that can quickly grow exponentially, given that people are wild hogs’ sole predator.

The only requirement to hunt feral swine is a valid hunting license, or an exemption from a license. Feral swine may be hunted year round — there is no closed season and no bag limit.

Wehner said his office estimates that there are hogs in 95 of the state’s 100 counties, including Dare, Tyrell and Hyde counties, along with Pasquotank, Chowan and Camden, in addition to Currituck’s population.

Feral swine have a become serious issue across the United States, according to Gail Keirn, the public affairs specialist for the National Wildlife Research Center.

“Feral swine cause major damage to property, agriculture (crops and livestock), native species and ecosystems, and cultural and historic resources,” Keirn said in an email.

“This invasive species also threatens the health of people, wildlife, pets, and other domestic animals. Published literature states that feral swine cause approximately $1.5 billion in damages; however, more recent reports have suggested that the number is between $2 billion and $2.5 billion and our own data support this,” Keirn wrote.

“As feral swine populations continue to expand across the country, these damages, costs, and risks will continue to rise.”

Population estimates for the number of feral swine in the continental United States vary. The National Feral Swine Damage Management Program states that between 5 and 6 million feral swine exist in at least 35 states. Their numbers and range have increased considerably over the past few decades.

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Comments

SunsetBeach

November 17, 2017 10:38 pm

About 30 years ago we had a former manager of refuge above Carova that was a friend of mine. We hunted the hogs behind Penny Hill, shot dozens, and he couldn’t figure out why we could shoot so many and he kept seeing more. On the way back south we’d meet a family (no names) that was actually trucking in the hogs (to their own property). There you have it. Funny stuff. So, as a wildlife professional, the next step to cleanse the region would be to get the feral horses rounded up. But that won’t happen, now will it?

Bud

November 16, 2017 7:22 am

Horse tours bring destruction and disease to the area too. Should we eradicate them also? (The place would be much better off)

hightider

November 15, 2017 10:52 pm

You trap them in pens baited with corn soaked in beer and left to ferment.

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