The terminology varies: wild boar, feral swine, feral pig, Sus scrofa. Appearance can, too: coats can be solid, belted or spotted; brown, black, or white. Adults can weigh from 100 to 400 pounds. A female can bear up to three litters of two to eight young each per year.
Of the feral pigs roaming New York, many are hardy ‘wild strain’ Eurasian stock used for sport hunting which have escaped from shooting preserves. Some are escaped domestic breeds, and others are crosses between these types.
But the constants are what are important. The feral pig population in the Northeast has been rising for some time, and shows no signs of abating in the foreseeable future. Feral pigs are constantly expanding their range. And the damage they cause, whether it’s devastation in a farm field, suburban lawn or wetland, a killed pet or a traumatized homeowner, is always significant.
Most of the destruction they wreak comes from rooting with their powerful snouts as they forage, ripping out vegetation of all kinds more effectively than a rototiller or plow. Whether it’s forest, swamp, hay field or backyard, feral pigs tear up every landscape they encounter, leaving a swath of bare earth in their wake. Not only do they alter critical habitats and destroy native vegetation, their rooting leads to erosion, topsoil loss and subsequent water quality degradation.
As with all swine, feral pigs are omnivores, consuming everything from grain, plants, bulbs and fruit to grubs and carrion. Similar in that respect to Norway rats, feral pigs readily adapt to a wide range of food in all sorts of habitat.
Cold-hardy as well as heat tolerant, they aren’t fussy about climate either.
Not content to eat what they find, feral pigs also hunt. They’re especially hard on birds, as they eat fledglings in addition to the eggs of ground-nesting birds. Small animals like rodents and amphibians, even fawns, are fair game. They have no compunction about making a meal of Rover or Fluffy, either, and have attacked humans.
Farmers face multiple threats. Besides destroying crops, feral pigs prey on young and weak livestock. They’re also known to carry up to 30 diseases including brucellosis and pseudo-rabies as well as dozens of kinds of parasites, all of which can transmit to domestic animals.
No longer only a southern problem, the first feral pig breeding population in New York State was identified in 2008. Currently in New York there are four known breeding populations (each proximal to a shooting preserve) in six counties. Clinton County is home to one of NY’s feral pig breeding populations. Eight other counties, including St. Lawrence, have had confirmed sightings. Estimates for the total number of feral pigs in New York range from the mid- to high hundreds.
New York State is at a critical point. If we don’t act boldly we could easily miss the chance to control this invasive species. Cornell Professor of Natural Sciences Paul Curtis, along with researchers from Penn State, the USDA and other institutions and agencies, are working to address this issue. Recently, scientists from Australia have even joined the effort, sharing their experience with radio tracking to identify migration patterns. Even so, Paul Curtis and others agree that much more funding is needed.
In October 2013, NYS Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a law prohibiting the import, sale or release of wild boars or hybrids. By 2015 wild boar possession will be illegal, with fines of $1,000 or more for violators. This is an important development, but we will need a varied, multifaceted approach to control this highly adaptable species.
Please report feral pig sightings to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. In Herkimer, Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence Counties, call 315-785-2263. In Clinton, Essex, Franklin or Hamilton counties: 518-897-1291.
Photo of Feral pigs courtesy the National Parks Service.