A lumpy field of mud interrupts an otherwise untouched grassy meadow in a remote section of Mark Twain National Forest near Rolla. Just to the right stands a large, circular cage made of metal. The day before, a 200-pound feral hog followed a trail of corn through the cage’s small opening.
After she set off the trip wire, the door slammed shut. Feral hogs are most likely responsible for the neighboring field of mud. Searching for grubs and a place to wallow, just 10 feral hogs can destroy 20 to 30 acres overnight. Before long, a single shot is fired, and she’s laying on her side at the back of the cage, motionless.
Scott McWilliams, a Missouri Department of Conservation wildlife biologist, and Dale Delong, a local farmer, drag the black sow through the cage’s small opening. After inspecting the pig’s worn tusks and measuring her girth at about 40 inches, they heave the pig onto the back of Dale’s 4-wheeler and strap her down.
“On forest service or private land we donate them to the landowner and let them do whatever,” said McWilliams. “If they want them destroyed fine, if they want to use ‘em, and the majority of ‘em get used.”
McWilliams has been hunting feral hogs for MDC since the '90s, when the hog population skyrocketed in Missouri. As hog hunting became more popular, people started releasing them into the wild. One hog can give birth to twelve piglets a year, and the population can grow by 166% annually. The rapid growth makes it challenging to track the population, but they’ve been confirmed in at least 30 counties in Missouri, most in the hilly terrain of the Ozarks.
The species can destroy agricultural land, contaminate livestock, destroy natural habitat and injure humans. Damages cost the U.S. an estimated $1.5 billion a year. Delong, the farmer that helps McWilliams trap hogs, says he had to spend $4,000 on a trap out of pocket because the the animals had become such a problem.
Alan Leary is the wildlife management coordinator for MDC. He he works closely with the USDA and all the land managing agencies in the state, as well as various agricultural groups, to trap and manage feral hogs. No one agency is responsible for spearheading efforts, which can make it hard to coordinate efforts. For example, in 2016, Missouri banned feral hog hunting on public lands, but the forest service and the park service haven’t yet followed suit.
On the surface, the ban can seem counterintuitive. However, Leary says hunting individual hogs can make it harder for agencies to reduce the population. Hogs travel in groups of 20 or more, and the MDC’s method for catching hogs can trap as many as 30 at a time. Shooting just one or two can scare the others off. And then, according to Leary, you still have a whole group that can reproduce and wreak havoc on the landscape, but now they’re even harder to catch than before.
“If we only get one, the others get educated or a couple of the others get educated and they're that much harder to catch then later,” said Leary.
Although hogs are more prevalent in southern Missouri, Don Nikodim from the Missouri Pork Association says feral hogs have the potential to seriously hurt the pork industry throughout the state. Most commercial pigs are raised inside carefully controlled environments, and feral hogs can carry parasites and diseases that could spread and prevent Missouri pork producers from transporting and selling their pigs outside of the state.
“It doesn't just affect pig farmers if we have issues, it affects corn and soybean growers, and markets, and packers, and processors, and it affects everybody engaged in agriculture,” said Nikodim. “It’s not just pigs. It’s all the adjoining industries that are touched.”