There’s a population explosion of large, wild animals in the Virginia woods, and it’s not the cute, doe-eyed kind that conjures images of Bambi.
They have razor-sharp teeth, curling tusks and a nasty temper that prompts some to charge humans. They’re called feral hogs, wild pigs or big boars, but the names are lumped together because, said Mike Dye, a biologist for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, “a pig is a pig.”
Feral pigs are farm escapees living in the wild; wild pigs are born in the woods. They’re roaming at least 20 Virginia counties, including Fauquier and Culpeper. An unconfirmed sighting was reported in Prince William County.
The animals were introduced to America centuries ago, but the recent population boom, state game officials and biologists say, is largely the fault of hunters who imported wild pigs to hunt year round.
The hunters either didn’t know or didn’t care that the pigs are considered the most invasive animal in the United States. As a menace to ecosystems, they put the dreaded northern snakehead in the Chesapeake Bay to shame.
“As far as ecological damage, there is probably not a worse animal that’s out there,” said Dye, regional coordinator for feral pigs in Northern Virginia.
They eat like hogs. Turtle eggs are on the menu, along with the eggs and newly hatched young of wild turkeys and quail that nest on the ground. Buried roots and tubers are dug up for snacks. Acorns and chestnuts that bear the next generation of trees go down their gullets.
Farmers lose millions of dollars in yearly revenue to wild pigs that are established in 47 states, including massive populations in Texas, Florida, Georgia and North Carolina. They cause an estimated $1.5 billion in damage nationwide each year, prompting some state game officials to shoot them from the air.
In Lithonia, Ga., a populous suburban community near Atlanta, a wild pig ran amok in September, knocking over garbage, digging up yards and terrifying residents. Georgia wildlife officials sent in a team of trackers who shot it dead.
It’s exactly the kind of thing Virginia is trying to avoid by assembling a task force to address the problem.
If wild pigs develop a stronger presence in Virginia, they “will be the same as deer” that residents often see roaming the yards and streets of housing developments “but there will be more of them,” said Jim McGlone, an urban forestry conservationist for the Virginia Department of Forestry.
Wild pigs are baby-making machines, mating year-round. There can be eight piglets in a litter and as many as three litters in about a year.
With no natural predator, a pig population can triple in just over a year. To keep the population from growing, 70 percent of it has to be killed, which is nearly impossible. Virginia’s most recent estimate last year put the pig population at 2,500 to 3,000, with plenty of pairs to mate.
Texas has as many as 5 million wild pigs. Florida has about 400,000. Georgia officials said they have too many to count. South Carolina and North Carolina are in an uphill fight to keep their populations under control.
“We’re far beyond any ability to eradicate them from the state,” said Charlie Killmaster, deer and feral hog biologist for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
Feral hogs date back to Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto, who brought them to Florida as a food source in 1539. Later, American colonists allowed some domesticated hogs to feed in the woods, freeing many of them forever. They continue to escape from farm pens, Killmaster said.
But hunters are most responsible for Georgia’s population explosion, he said. Echoing officials in other states, including Virginia, Killmaster said they often free pigs to have something to shoot.
Killmaster thinks hunters know that wild pigs are an ecological nightmare. “I think they’re selfish. I think they just don’t care,” he said. Wild hogs caused an estimated $81 million in agricultural damage in 2011, according to a University of Georgia survey.
“States north of us like Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia have some opportunity to eradicate them” because the invasion is relatively new, Killmaster said.
Virginia took the obvious first step toward eradication when wild pigs were first considered a problem 20 years ago. It’s legal for licensed hunters to kill a feral pig in any manner, any day but Sunday.
But the pigs are notoriously hard to hunt.
“You hardly ever get a shot where the pig is just standing still,” said Deedy Loftus, a hunting guide and the owner of Bryson Hesperia Resort near Monterey, Calif. “They’re nocturnal. During this time of season, when it cools off, they’re out during the day.”
They can smell people. “We are predators. We smell like a predator in the food chain,” Loftus said. That doesn’t mean they won’t turn and fight, especially to protect piglets.
“They’re mean. They’re aggressive. They’ll charge you. They’ll cut you or stab you with their teeth. They have big tusks, or cutters, as we call them,” Loftus said.
Wild pigs can rip open the femoral artery in a person’s leg, causing massive bleeding. “You have to be real careful when you’re up close and personal,” she said. “It’s hard to shoot when you’re shaking and running.”
The difficulty of hunting might help explain why Virginia’s wild pig population keeps growing. The thought that it will grow out of control haunts McGlone.
Wild pigs are an “ominous smoke on the horizon,” he said. He worries about the future of trees in woods full of pigs.
“The ground looks plowed up,” he said. “They create disturbed land that can be taken over by invasive species like Japanese honeysuckle, multiflora rose.”
Japanese honeysuckle kills trees. Like its faster-growing cousin kudzu, honeysuckle wraps around trees and slowly strangles them. The vines drag across limbs and leaves, choking them.
“The pigs create good habitat for the plants to invade. Deer already do that; pigs will add another layer,” McGlone said. “They’re already doing a number on the environment.”