Georgia’s costly feral hog problems are getting some assistance this year from the federal government, which allocated $20 million to battle swine infestations in 39 states.
“It’s an allocation we have a share of—to assist you guys here in Georgia,” said Matthew Ondovchik, Georgia’s feral swine coordinator with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services program.
Ondovchik spoke Jan. 12 to about 65 farmers, landowners and sportsmen who attended a Feral Hog Management Workshop organized by the Brier Creek Soil & Water Conservation District.
Last year’s $20 million allocation came partly in response to data showing 39 states now have verifiable and expanding feral hog infestations.
Although annual damage estimates total $1.5 billion nationwide, new studies are under way to get a more accurate assessment of the damage hogs are causing in specific areas, he said.
“In the future, we need to be able to go to the legislative bodies and tell them exactly how much damage feral swine are doing to our farms—and your peanut crops,” he told the group.
The initial $20 million allocation is a great start but will not finance new programs in all affected areas.
“It was split up in different states based on a formula,” he said. “The more pigs they had, the more money they got.”
Georgia received $295,000, which is being used in a variety of ways to help create better hog control options.
“As many pigs as we have, $295,000 doesn’t go far,” he said. “But it was still a huge chunk of money for our agency, and we are trying to spend it to provide the greatest benefit to the largest number of people.”
The department is offering consulting to landowners to help evaluate hog density and recommend possible solutions.
Some of the assistance is in the form of matching funds.
“If he can invest $2,000 to trap pigs, maybe we can also invest $2,000,” he said. “But you will need to continue once you start. If you let things go for six months or a year, the population keeps growing and you’re back to ground zero.”
In addition to traps, officials are exploring other options that include night shooting, aerial sniping from helicopters and even the possible future approval of a “toxicant” that will poison and kill feral hogs without endangering wildlife.
The USDA’s toxicant research involves the use of sodium nitrite—ironically a preservative used in bacon—to kill feral hogs.
“Basically it’s giving a salt overdose to pigs,” he said, noting that hogs respond differently to the compound than other livestock and wildlife species. “So far the trials have been favorable,” he said.
It is also in use, successfully, in Australia and New Zealand. If ultimately approved, however, it would be for limited—and registered—use.
“You can’t drop by and pick up a sack of pig killer at the feed store,” he said.
If approved, it still would not eradicate feral hogs from the environment.
“Is it going to be a silver bullet to solve the problem? No,” he said. “But it would be another tool in the tool box.”
Aerial hog control currently involves limited use of two helicopters based in the department’s East Region office in Tennessee.
“We have to schedule them in one-week increments, and well in advance,” he said.
Because hogs are unpredictable and often change feeding habits, good reconnaissance is a pre-requisite for any effective control program.
“The pigs are going to dictate what we do,” he said. “It depends on response to bait, seasonality and the land.”
Cost-share programs may or may not be a major part of the program in the future.
The USDA is also conducting research in Dooly County, Ga., to develop better ways to get accurate, credible figures for the economic losses to peanut crops caused by hogs.
“We’re doing everything we can to come up with those numbers,” he said. “We have to have an accurate figure so we can go to the legislatures with hard statistics when we ask for help.”
Ondovchik stressed that the current programs and studies are part of an effort to develop better and broader strategies in the future—and to get those strategic measures funded.
“This is still evolving,” he said. “From where we are tonight, it could be totally different this time next year.”