Bad news boars: Helicopter crew fights NY feral swine

Above: A trailcam captures a nighttime view of a wild boar in Delaware County. Photo taken in August of 2013; courtesy of Justin Gansowski of the USDA.

This week, federal wildlife agents armed with cameras and sniper rifles are patrolling New York State skies by helicopter, hoping for a glimpse of wild pigs. It's the latest mission in an ongoing battle to rid the state of feral swine, before most New Yorkers even realize the state has a pig problem.

It's far too late for Texas, whose $500-million-a-year feral pig problem has been dubbed the "aporkalypse." In Florida, the pestilential pigs are found in every county, and have even destroyed a $16 million F-16 fighter plane. Pigs are a moot point in Mississippi, where experts say it's "only a matter of time" before feral swine rut and root their way from rural Clay County to the far corners of the state

But it might not be too late for New York, according to the handful of state and federal regulators whose task it is to try to keep feral swine from getting established in the Empire State.

From Jan. 28 through Feb. 7, a helicopter crew from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is surveying several areas known to be home to feral swine, including part of Delaware and Sullivan counties. If they spot any feral pigs on land they are surveying, and if the landowner has already given them permission, they will shoot the animals from the air.

Kelly Stang, wildlife biologist for the New York State Department of Conservation (DEC), said that to her knowledge, it's the first time in New York State history that government officials have set out to hunt animals by helicopter. But the USDA crew has flown similar missions all across the East Coast.

The main purpose of the helicopter flights is not to hunt the hogs, but to find out more about the wily animals and their movements across the landscape. With trees bare and snow on the ground, torn-up ruts in the earth left by foraging swine should be easier to spot.

"The crew that's doing it, all they do is aerial operations," Stang said. "The main goal is to survey -- to see if we can find any from the air, where are they, how many. If they do have the opportunity to shoot them, they will take that shot."

Any pig that escapes captivity can go feral, but the main culprit is the Eurasian boar: a furry, tusked ancestor of the domestic pig that can interbreed freely with its captive cousins, and shares the same species, Sus scrofa. In the wild, they are smart, elusive, quick to multiply, and incredibly destructive.

Feral swine were first found in New York State in 2008. According to a 2012 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), feral swine have since established four separate breeding populations in the state, and span six counties: Delaware, Sullivan, Onandaga, Tioga, Cortland and Clinton. Most of the state's feral pigs are descended from Eurasian boars, and their breeding populations are all close to enclosed private ranges where boars are raised for hunting.

New York legislators have begun to take action. A new state law passed in October of 2013 made it illegal to breed Eurasian boars, or import them into the state. By September of 2015, the law will ban any possession of the boars, making so-called "canned hunts" illegal. But without action to get rid of the boars already breeding wild in the state, the new law won't be enough.

Justin Gansowski, wildlife biologist for the USDA, said that local populations are still low enough that New York has a real shot at eliminating the destructive animals from the state.

"We're very lucky in New York State, because the DEC, the Wildlife Service, all the agencies are taking this very seriously," he said. "For once, we're ahead of this one, not starting when we're already behind."

Above: Damage caused by rooting feral swine on Peter Andersen's farm in Delaware County. Photo taken by Justin Gansowski, USDA. 

Farmer on the front lines

If there's a front line in New York State's battle against feral hogs, it could be drawn right across Peter Andersen's Delaware County farm.

Andersen farms about a thousand acres in Long Eddy, in the town of Hancock, with a maple syrup operation and about 100 head of polled Hereford beef cattle. Over the past few years, he's become something of an expert on feral swine -- the hard way. Andersen figures the hogs have caused upwards of $40,000 in damage on his farm.

The worst loss was a corn crop that the pigs took out twice in a row, Andersen said.

"In a week they had cleaned the field. Eleven acres," he said. "I replanted it. Man, it was gorgeous. About four or five inches high. I was in there on a Thursday night. I came back on a Monday morning and it was gone. There wasn't a piece left anywhere, they just cleaned it. Went right down the rows, vrooooom."

To add insult to injury, Andersen, and the USDA wildlife specialists who have set up shop on his farm, know exactly where the swine are coming from: Andersen's neighbor. A nearby property belongs to an operation called Pond Ridge Hunts, which offers hunters the chance to shoot Eurasian boars on a private preserve.

Pond Ridge owner Zybysek Trunirz has acknowledged that his land is the source of the problem, but the pigs continue to escape periodically. Trunirz's pigs are worrying Sullivan County neighbors, too. Last October, Trunirz brought some of his pigs to another property in the town of Bethel that he had used before as a breeding area, alarming local officials who had hoped the animals were gone for good.

On the other side of his neighbor's fence in Hancock, Andersen said, the effect of pigs on the landscape is clear to see.

"It looks like Mars inside this pen. They've killed and eaten everything in there," he said.

When the first few boars escaped and made their way to his farm about seven years ago, Andersen said, he tried to work it out with his neighbor.

"The first time they got out, I talked to the guy, he came here and fixed some of the fields," Andersen said. "It got too much, all the time."

With feral swine now breeding outside the Pond Ridge Hunts enclosure, Andersen has opened his farm up to USDA wildlife agents, who have set up complicated trapping operations to capture whole groups of pigs. Feral swine often travel in groups called "sounders," which consist of a mother sow and her offspring. Using corral traps, which are set up piece by piece around a bait pile over a long period of time, the wildlife agents try to take out an entire sounder at once.

Andersen said the USDA has trapped between 60 and 100 pigs on his farm. He figures he's shot another 30 himself -- 12 of them in one night. The hardest to get, he said, are the little ones, which he dubs "footballs."

Once, Andersen said, he was able to get a hold of a live wild piglet, to the delight of Gansowski and the rest of the USDA team.

"He thought I gave him a Christmas present in July. He was ecstatic," Andersen said.

The piglet tested positive for antibodies against pseudorabies, a disease that can spread to pigs, cows and other livestock. 

To work well, an eradication program needs gear and expertise, Andersen said.

"USDA's got all the good toys. They've got night scopes, silencers, everything else," he said. "They're well equipped to take these pigs out."

The USDA also has an OH-6 Cayuse helicopter -- a piece of gear the state DEC's wildlife officials don't have access to. Asked if he would allow federal agents to shoot boars on his land from above, Andersen was enthusiastic.

"Yes. Absolutely," he said. "Any way to get rid of them, by all means."

Above: Part 1 of "A Pickup Load Of Pigs," a documentary about feral swine produced by the Mississippi State University Extension Service in 2011.

What's at stake

In areas where feral swine have become well-established, they make a vast nuisance of themselves. Like living rototillers, they tear up lawns and farm fields, spread disease to humans and animals, pollute streams, and turn fragile vernal pools into muddy wallows. They have been known to kill (and sometimes eat) fawnssmall livestock and pets.

For New York City's unfiltered watershed, feral swine pose a particular threat: They carry diseases that can spread to humans through feces, and their rooting can stir up enough silt and pollution in streams to make them unswimmable, let alone drinkable.

Wild pigs have not yet established breeding populations within the New York City watershed, said Meredith Taylor, an invasive species biologist for the city Department of Environmental Protection, but the agency is keeping a close eye on the spread of the animals.

"The primary concern for us is increased turbidity and erosion along stream banks," Taylor said. "We're also concerned about disease. We would be concerned about leptospirosis, if the numbers [of swine] were high enough. We're a long way off from a concern with that."

Federal scientists have analyzed maps of New York State to see how much of the state would be likely habitat for feral swine, and come up with a figure: 72 percent.

It's a sobering number, Gansowski said.

"We could have pigs just about everywhere," he said. "If you let that come to fruition, you've got a full-fledged feral swine population."

Lack of a coherent national strategy on how to deal with feral swine has hurt efforts to eradicate them, a Michigan pig expert told a New York Times reporter in April of 2013:

“As a nation, we have not thought through this invasive species problem, and we just have disaster after disaster after disaster,” said Patrick Rusz, the director of wildlife services at the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy.

In most states where feral swine are a problem, hunting of free-roaming boars is allowed, often year-round and with few restrictions. The trouble is, it doesn't work, say scientists who study the animals. Far from making a dent in the pig problem, scientists say, hunters are often making it worse.

To keep the numbers of fast-breeding pigs from going up, according to Texas biologist Mark Tyson, an eradication program must eliminate at least 66 percent of the animals each year. Without an organized plan to eradicate whole groups of pigs, hunters simply can't take out enough, say USDA scientists.

"The most effective and efficient way to eliminate feral swine is by managing whole sounder groups, which is different from hunting," a 2012 report from the USDA states. "Several states have attempted to eliminate feral swine by encouraging hunting, which has proven unsuccessful in each instance."

In a 2011 documentary by the Mississippi State University Extension Service, "A Pickup Load Of Pigs," Texas wildlife services state director Michael Bodenchuk puts it more bluntly: "We're not gonna barbecue our way out of this problem," he says.

Boars no longer "fair game" in New York

Sobered by the failure of other states to make a dent in the pig problem by allowing widespread private hunting, officials at the New York State DEC are taking another tack. Proposed statewide regulations, which have not yet been made final, would ban all hunting of feral swine. If the new regulations are adopted, the only legal way to kill free-roaming Eurasian boars will be as part of a government eradication program.

Hunters can disrupt trapping operations without meaning to, Stang said.

"A trapping operation is very time-consuming, very expensive," she said. "[The boars] are smart, they learn fast. You've spent all this time and money, and someone takes a shot at them and scatters them, you may never get them back again."

The DEC's biggest worry is that New York hunters will start enjoying the pursuit of the wily animals, and decide they'd like to have their own local boars to hunt. In many areas where feral swine are just beginning to move in, Stang said, the problem starts in the first place with hunters transporting and releasing hogs illegally.

"Even though release is illegal in almost every state, it is the biggest way these animals are spreading across the country," she said. "If you want to discourage release of these animals, disallow hunting of them."

It's not a philosophy Andersen agrees with.

The prospect of not being legally allowed to kill a pig on his own farm is troubling to Andersen, who believes anyone with a hunting license should be able to shoot boars.

"The opportunity to shoot the pigs happens so infrequently that when you're there, you've got to do it now," he said. "A neighbor will call me and say, 'There's pigs in my yard' -- in 15 minutes, they're gone."