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Feral pig fear spreads to SD

This undated photo provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services shows a group of trapped feral pigs.

South Dakota wildlife officials want to send wild pigs crying all the way home.

The state does not currently have an established population of feral pigs, but that appears to be changing.

Just a handful of years ago, feral pigs were an easily ignored problem to the south. They weren't seen in South Dakota, and they weren't expected to be.

There has since been one feral pig sighting in the state, at least two unconfirmed sightings and a handful of false alarms.

"It does appear they are adapting and moving north," said Chuck Schlueter, communications manager for the state Game, Fish and Parks' Division of Wildlife. "We are likely to see a few show up."

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, feral pigs are found in at least 35 states -- mostly in the South -- and have a population of more than 5 million, although the USDA says that due to the constant growth of the population, predicting the population and range is difficult. Annually, they cause $1.5 billion in damages. Their rooting, consumption and trampling of crops causes an estimated $800 million in agricultural damage annually.

South Dakota's confirmed sighting was in Britton, in the state's northeast corner. The pig was shot and killed by two residents after it ran out of a field. State Game, Fish and Parks Game Manager Jacqui Ermer said DNA testing was not done on the pig, but visual clues indicated it was a wild hog.

Marshall County Conservation Officer Casey Dowler responded to the call for the hog the night of Oct. 30. The pig weighed close to 300 pounds and had tusks.

"I thought, that's a strange call to get," Dowler said. "It's very odd to have a hog in this area."

There was no indication the pig had caused any destruction, and no tracks were found. An investigation into the pig failed to conclude how long the pig had been in the remote area.

"We see a lot of strange animals," Dowler said. "I've seen porcupines, we had a moose come down, but that pig was by far the strangest animal I've ever seen in Marshall County."

Unconfirmed sightings

In late 2009, a feral pig was mistakenly reported in several news outlets to have been killed in Madison.

Moody County Conservation Officer Chad Williams was shown a picture of the pig early on the day it was shot. He said that from the picture, it looked like a feral pig, but it was discovered later that day after a resident killed it that it was a domestic pot-bellied pig. The pig had been raised as a pet and escaped.

Not only was the pig a false alarm, but Williams said there are no feral pigs in Moody County, and he never expects to see one.

"It's very rare to see one in South Dakota, at least at this point," said Schlueter.

Two more false alarms were in Brown and Brookings counties, where the calls about feral pigs ended up being loose domestic pigs.

Last November in Gregory County, a conservation officer was called to Scalp Creek for a sighting of a group of feral pigs. There was evidence that a pig had rooted around in the area, but no pig was found.

A similar experience occurred in January in Hand County. Conservation Officer Cory Flor spent a day searching for a possible feral pig eight miles east of Miller, but was unable to find many tracks due to snow, even though he arrived on the scene around 30 minutes after receiving the call. The pig was reported to be dark gray and between 250 and 300 pounds.

Wild pigs were rumored, but never confirmed, to be along Big Stone Lake in Ortonville, Minn., in 2005. The town is less than a mile away from the South Dakota state line.

South Dakota's climate has been viewed as a tool for keeping feral swine out, but with several confirmed sightings in Nebraska, it appears they may be moving north. There's also a population of pigs in Canada, according to a newspaper in Calgary, Alberta.

The confirmed and unconfirmed sightings in South Dakota have so far been mostly on the eastern side of the state, but Schlueter said that could be because a larger population of people is more likely to spot a pig.

Invasive species

Feral pigs can plow through neighborhoods and fields alike, rooting around in the ground and eating anything they can get their snouts into. They spread disease and weigh in at around 200 pounds, but it's not unusual for them to surpass that weight. Their tusks grow continuously and often are 4 inches long. The invasive species is considered a threat to native species, and their habit of rooting around the banks of streams and rivers can cause a danger to aquatic habitats.

Their growth in numbers is due to multiple factors. They're highly adaptable, and their home ranges can stretch across several thousand acres. Female feral pigs can begin repopulating when they are 3 months old and can reproduce twice a year, although they will usually only have a litter a year. The average litters contain three to eight piglets, with low infant mortality.

The USDA has predicted that even if 90 to 100 percent of female pigs were eliminated annually, the breeding in juveniles alone would prevent a decrease in their population.

Feral swine are not protected by any federal laws or regulations. The USDA Animal, Plant and Health Inspection Service labels feral swine as an invasive species. In 2012, 28,498 feral pigs were reported as intentionally killed or euthanized by the government in 29 states. That number does not include private hunters seeking pigs for their own purposes. There is no overall record of the number of feral swine hunted each year.

The pigs are native to Eurasia, but were introduced in the United States in the 1500s. They were initially released for food, but some were captured by hunters and introduced to new areas. They are mainly a problem in the southern U.S., with the highest populations residing in Texas, California, Florida, Hawaii and Oklahoma. Sizable populations are in Arizona, New Mexico, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Missouri.

North Dakota is the only state bordering South Dakota to have held an established population of wild hogs. The North Dakota pigs are located along the Canadian border, in Rolette County.

The pigs appeared in the fall of 2007. There were attempts to trap the pigs, but after a winter of attempts to catch them, not a single pig was confined. The next spring, they disappeared, Wildlife Resource Management Supervisor Brian Prince said. The pigs have not been spotted since, but the National Feral Swine Mapping System still recognizes the population. The map is updated monthly by state wildlife agencies.

"We're not sure what happened, if the locals took care of them, or if they moved into Canada," Prince said.

There are an estimated 3 million wild pigs throughout Canada. Since 2008, Alberta has had a bounty of $50 per wild boar killed in an attempt to eradicate the population. The pigs pose a problem in Saskatchewan, Alberta and southern Manitoba, proving the pigs can endure harsh winters.

Zero tolerance

Keith Fisk, an administrator for the South Dakota Wildlife Damage Program, has only heard of a wild pig being seen in the state around once a year, and said most calls end up as false alarms.

"It's pretty minimal. We've been pretty lucky," Fisk said. "We have zero and we want to keep it at that."

Eugene Chaloupka farms corn in Moulton, Texas. Chaloupka switched his farm to a corn maze after experiencing problems with wild pigs. On multiple occasions, he and his neighbors have woken up to find entire acres rooted up by pigs overnight. Farmers in his area use traps and electric fences with little success.

"I never thought I had to worry about a hog while trying to farm," Chaloupka said.

He started having problems with the hogs 20 years ago. So far this year, he and his neighbors have trapped and killed more than 100 in the area.

"You'll think you've got it solved, let your guard down, and then they'll show up at night," Chaloupka said.

Chaloupka switched to corn for corn mazes because it was more difficult for pigs to root up his entire harvest. He recommends fending off the pigs as soon as they turn up in an area.

"You better start getting them now," Chaloupka said. "You're going to have a big problem real quick."

Dustin Oedekoven, the South Dakota state veterinarian, said the state has a zero tolerance policy with feral swine due to the diseases they could spread to livestock and the damage they could cause to fields. Many of the diseases wild pigs can carry, such as the pseudorabies virus and swine brucellosis, have been eradicated in domestic pigs, but could reemerge if a population of wild hogs settles into the state.

"We don't allow them to be permitted for any purpose," Oedekoven said. "We certainly don't want to find them established here."

Due to the high risk feral swine present, the state has adopted a hard approach to dealing with the pigs.

"In cases where shooting one is possible, we encourage people to shoot them if they find them," Oedekoven said.

The investigation into the pig found in Marshall County revealed it was an animal someone probably dropped off. Hunters sometimes release feral pigs into states in order to hunt them.

"We understand the draw to that animal is to hunt, but it's not worth the risk to the swine industry," Oedekoven said. "We strongly encourage people to not be tempted by the recreational aspect of the animal."

Even if a hunter were to keep a wild pig in an enclosed area, the intelligent pigs almost always escape.

Although they are a growing concern, Oedekoven said there isn't much the state Animal Industry Board can do at the moment except ban the entry of wild pigs into the state and educate the public on the dangers feral swine pose to the pork industry. Transporting feral swine is a misdemeanor, according to state law.

"We have to remain vigilant for these pigs," Oedekoven said. "We have to do anything we can to keep them out."

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