Part I: Protecting the Family Farm
As wild pigs root around searching for food across the nation, their thick snouts destroy an estimated $1.5 billion in crops each year. Trapping, aerial gunnery and dog hunting are just a few ways the feral animals are removed and ultimately euthanized by state and federal agencies. But some Floridians take hog management into their own hands. For Amos Townsend, hunting hogs is a means to protect his family farm.
At least once a week, Amos Townsend hunts down the wild hogs that frequent his North Florida property. He often heads out at night, accompanied by a night vision scope and his dogs, who are specially trained to help Townsend capture the animals alive.
Townsend prefers to catch the hogs by hand, hog-tying them after his dogs track them down and hold them in place until he can grab their back legs and wrestle them onto their sides.
“They’re pretty aggressive. They can get after you. You’ve just gotta be careful,” Townsend said. “Make sure when you go to catch one by hand, once you’re committed, don’t get scared and back up. That’s how they will get you. Once you are committed, you’ve got to go ahead on and don’t let go.”
Townsend is a sixth-generation farmer who runs a 5,000-acre farm in Suwannee County with his father and uncle. Townsend Brothers Farm produces a variety of crops: sweet potatoes, corn, peanuts, carrots, watermelon. All of which hogs love to eat.
“There are so many around here. They’re such a nuisance, getting into our crop,” Townsend said. “Just 10 hogs can root up several acres in one night. They’ll get into the crop rows and follow the row down.”
A Mishmash of Feral Swine
As wild pigs root around searching for food across the nation, their thick snouts destroy an estimated $1.5 billion in crops each year, and Florida is home to one of the highest densities of pigs along with Alabama, Arkansas, California, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas.
The range of this federally designated invasive species in Florida is widespread: feral hogs can be found in all 67 Florida counties.
Florida is classified as a level 5 in the tiered management system outlined by the USDA, which as the highest classification, means that more than 750,000 feral swine are likely to live in the state. However the number could be much larger than this–no one really knows.
“It’s a hard question to answer,” said Jeremy Butts, assistant state director in the Wildlife Services Program with the United States Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. “I would say it’s probably as high as our deer population, but, you know, even those are estimates.”
Floridians have taken different approaches to managing the ever-growing population of feral pigs in the state. In the federal and state management realm, trapping, aerial gunnery and dog hunting are just a few ways the feral animals are removed and ultimately euthanized. At the same time, some pig rescue groups have taken in feral swine, caring for them and even finding homes to adopt them.
Feral swine are the offspring of escaped or released pigs, which means they are the same species (Sus scofa) as farm pigs, wild hogs, pot-bellied pigs and minipigs, according to the USDA.
“It’s mostly a mishmash of feral swine,” said Butts, who works to remove feral swine populations in the state. “Everybody talks about the piney woods rooter and the Russian boar. Ninety percent of what’s in Florida is just a mishmash of swine.”
With that said, Butts has happened upon small populations of feral swine in the state that are distinctively pot-bellied. But within a few generations, even the pot-bellied pigs begin to appear like the feral hogs that most Floridians are familiar with.
Spanish colonists first brought pigs to Florida in the 1500s. Some reports credit Ponce de Leon in 1521; others point to Hernando de Soto in 1539. These early settlers allowed hogs to roam in the wild, rounding them up when it came time to butcher. Over the last 400 years, the pigs have proliferated.
Now, more than six million feral swine are estimated to inhabit the U.S., occupying 38 states and three U.S. territories.
‘Pigs Aren’t Easy’
On top of rooting up crop rows and taking out acres of potential harvest, hogs present a serious food safety issue. Pathogens in the poop of pigs and many other animals can leach into fruits and vegetables that we eat.
In 2011, after an influx of foodborne illness cases in the early 2000s, President Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act into law. Under FSMA, farmers are required to have a plan to keep animals like pets, deer, coyote and hogs away from their crops. If feces are found near crops, farmers may not be allowed to harvest.
“In fact, it’s actually very difficult to remove all pigs. They’re cryptic.”
“The farmer is expected to know where the health risks lie,” said Bob Hochmuth, director of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Suwannee Valley Research and Education Center.
Hochmuth works with farmers to develop food safety plans, including methods to control animal interference.
“It’s of paramount importance to figure out how not to have an impact,” he said. “But pigs aren’t easy.”
Raoul Boughton, a wildlife biologist at the UF Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, agrees.
“In fact, it’s actually very difficult to remove all pigs,” Boughton said. “They’re cryptic.”
He explains that when there’s an abundance of pigs, they’re easy to see. But often pigs wander into rural areas in small groups called sounders.
“When there’s less, you have to go looking for them.”
Boughton works with landowners, cattlemen and ranchers to resolve conflict between humans and wildlife in Florida, and feral hogs are at the top of his list.
“[The hog problem] is big and unquantified,” Boughton said.
Boughton explains that there are many other impacts on agriculture that aren’t included in the $1.5 billion damage estimate. A good example of this is destruction of cattle pastures. After a pig roots up the original grass, approximately 50% of the regrowth is not edible to livestock, according to a study Boughton conducted. The team monitored a damaged patch for more than a year and found that there was almost no recovery to the original grass, showing that when pigs root up farmlands, the impacts endure.
A Sense of Pride
For Townsend, hunting the hogs is a necessity. He protects his family farm, and he typically gives the hog meat to local families.
Townsend relies on Catahoula leopard and black mouth cur dogs to locate, herd and hold the pigs. He trains them from puppies, breeding adults that he has hunted for years. And he insists on not using a gun to shoot the hogs when his dogs are with him because the dogs are too intermingled with the pigs to ensure their safety.
The practice of hunting hogs runs deep in his family’s history, as well as in the lineage of his dogs, and it gives him a sense of pride.
“It’s a cool thing and it’s something that’s been going on for a long time,” Townsend said. “The old South Florida Crackers a long time ago rounded up wild cows in the Everglades and hogs, and the black mouth curs, that’s the same bloodlines that they used back then.”
Florida is likely home to more than estimated 750,000 feral pigs. To cool off, they dig muddy wallows that serve as the perfect breeding grounds for mosquitoes and, in large numbers, can change the hydrology of the landscape. They carry dangerous pathogens that can be passed to humans, pets, livestock and other wildlife. But methods to manage them are not so clear cut.
Wild pigs are among the most intelligent animals, native or exotic, in the United States. From pot-bellied pets to feral hogs to the large farm pigs that become the bacon on your plate, Americans have a complex relationship with swine. Even though their impacts are well documented, at least fourteen rescue groups in Florida have committed to rescuing wild and domestic pig populations.
Featured image by Lovett Williams, State Archives of Florida. Photo Credits State Archives of Florida, Bruce Means, Jeremy Butts and Christal Ellard. Map from USDA APHS