Picture yourself on a walk through Rock Creek Park. Whitetailed deer pick their way through the trees, eyeing you warily. Perhaps you hear the yip of a distant coyote. Then a strange grunting sound erupts from the underbrush and half a dozen wild pigs charge onto the path in front of you.
This scenario isn’t as far-fetched as it may sound.
Wild pigs — not the cute kind you see at the petting zoo but the ones with black bristly coats, narrow snouts and long, self-sharpening tusks — have quietly established themselves in much of Virginia, according to the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. The department estimates that there are between 2,500 and 3,000 wild pigs in the commonwealth. That may seem like a lot, but this number is well behind Texas, where, by one estimate, as many as 3.4 million wild pigs are at large. According to biologist Glen Askins of the Virginia game department, 36 states are coping with the consequences of wild pigs in their midst.
Today, the wild pigs that are closest to the District are living around Catlett, about 10 miles southwest of Manassas, according to Mike Dye, a biologist for the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. In five to 10 years, the species could make its debut inside the Beltway, he says.
That estimate stems from the behavior and breeding habits of wild pigs. At about 10 months of age, the animals begin to wander from their mothers. On average, they move about six miles during the following eight months, before settling into a new home range. They tend to roam in all directions, but as the animals head toward the built-up areas close to Washington, there’s less chance that they will be hunted. Biologists such as Dye suspect that the pigs will move northeast along water sources before hooking north along the Potomac.
Wild and feral pigs have come and gone from the state over the past few hundred years. Feral populations were recently descended from domestic livestock, those familiar fat, pink pigs with floppy ears that look more like “Babe” than the beast on the logo of Boar’s Head deli meats. It takes generations in the wild for domestic pigs to revert to a wild-type body. These pigs can have a hard time becoming established in the face of predators such as bobcats and coyotes and direct competition from deer for food. In addition, wild pigs have completely disappeared from Virginia during periods of intense hunting.
But what if wild hogs were imported into Northern Virginia?
Dye and other biologists suspect that this may be what has happened — that rogue hunters who like the idea of having a tough, exotic animal to pursue have trapped wild pigs and transported them into the commonwealth for release. Some have brought the pigs from as far as the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. Dye says that some people from other states “have come forward” about stocking these pigs in Virginia, though it has been difficult to track down the culprits because there are only one or two game wardens per county and they can only respond to complaints and are unlikely to witness a release taking place. The only physical evidence is the pigs — and they’re not talking.
Askins of the game department says that earlier this year there was “what appeared to be a truckload of hogs that was released in Halifax County. We have it by word of mouth in the community that the hogs have come from Tennessee and North Carolina.”
Dye says there are no laws against possessing or transporting pigs, and once they have been released, it is difficult to prove that the act was deliberate.
Wild pigs are having an effect on the environment. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, they cause about $1.5 billion in damage in the United States each year.
These pigs, which can weigh as much as 200 pounds, dig and root around in the soil in their search for tubers, insects and other food. A patch of ground visited by a small herd looks like a bulldozer has worked it over. There has been no research on the effects of Northern Virginia’s pigs on native species, but the experience of other states suggests that trouble might be brewing.
In Alabama, the animal has caused significant damage to longleaf pine trees, a threatened species that is Alabama’s state tree. Some landowners have reported losing up to 50 acres of the tree because of hogs that have rooted up field after field, according to Mark Hainds, a research associate with Auburn University and author of “Year of the Pig,” which details his experiences hunting invasive pigs.
As omnivorous predators, wild pigs can be a danger to any wildlife unable to get out of their way. They have come close to wiping out endangered salamanders in Florida and frequently dine on sea turtle eggs. One population of pigs in Argentina has reportedly feasted on fully grown sheep. Mature pigs are capable of attacking humans, but this is rare. Most attacks occur when a pig is injured and a human is standing directly between the animal and its escape path. The animals can spread disease to domestic livestock, which is a major reason for USDA’s concern.
Dye says that an immediate and aggressive eradication effort could remove all of Northern Virginia’s wild pigs and that it’s best not to wait too long. In five years, he says, “it might not be possible.”
Yet Virginia has no plan for stopping the pigs’ advance. Virginia’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has jurisdiction over livestock, while the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries is responsible for wildlife. Wild pigs represent a gray area. Neither agency has been given a budget or a mandate to begin eradication.
Dye says that even just a single trapper could “likely make a pretty good dent in the population.” But, he adds, “they would still be limited in the fact that almost all of the property in question is private. Because of that, we may not be able to completely eliminate them, but we could make a huge dent with that kind of help.”
For now, culling the herds is left to ordinary hunters, who are removing perhaps a quarter of the population. But given the pigs’ rapid rate of reproduction, about 70 percent of the population would need to be killed each year just to maintain current numbers. Without trapping and killing the pigs, there is little doubt that the problem will grow.
Meanwhile, the bureaucracy and politics of the issue are lost on the pigs. They dig; they eat; they breed. They travel.
Landers is the author of “Eating Aliens: One Man’s Adventures Hunting Invasive Animal Species.”