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.”