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  • February 21st, 2020

THIS LITTLE PIGGIE WENT TO HOG HELL

By Joel M. Vance

 

It has been 58 years since my late and dear friend, Mitch Jayne, brought to life one of the last, if not the last Osage Indian in a memorable book titled “Old Fish Hawk.” Mitch, born in North Missouri, emigrated to the Ozarks of southern Missouri where, basically, he spent the rest of his life— as a one room school teacher in the waning days of an old life that depended on the bounty of the steep oak and hickory forested hills (“them hills ain’t so high, but the hollers sure are deep,” said the old timers).

 

Mitch found celebrity as a member of the fabled bluegrass band, the Dillards, equally famous as the Darling family on the old Andy Griffith television show. Mitch saw his book brought to movie theaters as a feature, oddly filmed in Canada, many miles from the Ozarks setting of the plot. But if the setting was not authentic, the main character, Old Fish Hawk, a remnant Native American, actually was an Indian— Will Sampson, a Creek Indian from Oklahoma (who also portrayed a memorable character in the movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”).

 

Old Fish Hawk adroitly deals with a black bear that kills his dog, and then rids the backwoods neighborhood of a savage wild boar. Perhaps Mitch was having a bit of porcine prescience when he wrote the book because a half-century later the Ozarks not only has black bears, which were virtually absent in the nineteen sixties, but also the rugged hills today are plagued by, not one, but altogether too damn many feral hogs. Aside from occasional garbage can plunderers, bears have not become a problem in the Ozarks or elsewhere in Missouri, but feral hogs are a major threat to the rural environment, especially South of the Missouri River. Maybe not wild boars but the legacy of those frighteningly ferocious old world animals are the forebears (or forepigs?) of today’s rampaging hog herds. Often called “Russian” boars, the animals actually are Eurasian and once were native to Britain, so we can’t blame the Russians for the current foreseen porcine plague.

 

The problem is not confined to the Ozarks—feral hogs are increasingly prevalent in other states as well. As an introduced species they rank right up there with starlings, English sparrows, and other immigrant critters far less welcome to environmentalists than human immigrants are to Donald J “send ‘em back” Trump. Feral hogs occur in 38 states with populations on the rise. Texas, not only can lay claim to bigness in many things, it also leads in feral hog population with an estimated 2,600,000 of the estimated 45,000,000 feral piggies nationwide.

 

So far, efforts to control the expansion of feral hogs are complicated by the fact that the pigs are prolific, control methods are difficult, and uncooperative hunters, eager to add wild pig to their life list of trophy kills, have actually released fresh stock into the woods. Pigs enjoy sex about as much, if not more than their human counterparts, and give the fabled prolific bunny rabbit a run for its money when it comes to reproductive success. Given that a sow can have one or two litters a year, and that some of the up to half a dozen piglets will be females also capable of breeding the overall population is exponential, an explosion potentially capable of becoming an environmental disaster.

 

A few years back, an Ozark fishing guide, supplementing his summertime income by guiding hunters, offered to take me on a wild pig hunt. The idea was initially exciting—the opportunity to shoot an historic and fabled game animal that, at the time, I knew nothing about. I knew there were feral hogs in the Ozarks, but not that they were a problem. I didn’t take the guy up on his offer, and found later that he had been arrested and fined for poaching. I suspect perhaps he was among those backwoods types who encouraged pig prolificacy as a moneymaking venture and the hell with whatever damage it causes to the environment.

 

Wild boar hunting dates back almost to the moment when man, in his eternal search for food, began experimenting with ways to reduce wildlife to table fare. By the Middle Ages, boar hunting was elevated  almost to the equivalent of intrepid knights battling mythical dragons.

 

Given the once prevalent situation of open range in backcountry America, the introduction of Eurasian swine was akin to inviting the Russian mafia, bent on seduction, into the local debutant’s ball. After generations of injudicious crossbreeding between local piggies and their brawny and uncouth invaders, the result was what we have today—a feral hog.  As a bit of porcine trivia, a group of feral hogs is known as a sounder. Pigs are intelligent animals—probably close to the intellectual level of dogs. They definitely are smart enough to realize that when some hunter fatally shoots one among the sounder, it’s time to move on and become elusive. That’s why hunting or indiscriminate shooting is not an effective population control method.

 

Pigs, like humans are omnivores, eating anything that doesn’t eat them first. And, in feral hogs, that includes farm crops, food needed by resident wildlife, and even fawns or other small animals unfortunate enough to get in the way of foraging pigs. A sounder of feral hogs is the swine equivalent of a battalion of Roto-Rooters, leaving in its wake a ravaged countryside.

 

Wildlife introductions into the United States have not been notably successful. Florida is battling the unwelcome addition of pythons to its wildlife roster, and many large rivers are becoming clogged with Asian carp. Any introduced species inevitably competes with resident wildlife for food and housing—not to mention the possibility of introducing disease. And what fisherman wants feral hogs drinking from and wallowing in his favorite trout stream? For that matter what woodland hunter—deer, turkeys, squirrels or other wildlife dependent on nuts and other forest food for survival—welcomes feral hogs as competitors with native game? And certainly no farmer tolerates a sounder of feral hogs rooting up crops or eating the plants that are intended for people food or for sustaining domestic animals. Even if feral hogs don’t directly destroy crops, their rooting for anything edible turns topsoil into Erosion City.

 

Missouri conservationists have gotten proactive on feral hogs, forming what they call the Missouri Feral Hog Elimination Partnership—a group of agencies and organizations that are as they say “dedicated to the elimination of feral hogs from the state”  about 30 of the state’s 114 counties now are infested with feral hogs to the tune of “tens of thousands.”

 

Rather than shooting random hogs, the Conservation Department as the lead agency, recommends and practices trapping hogs and so far in what it calls Area One the group eliminated nearly 1000 feral hogs in 2017 and 18. The Department reports “once all known feral hogs are eliminated from the area, staff will monitor the area to ensure no hogs were missed and no hogs are illegally released.” The pig plan has closed most public land to feral hog hunting, and helps private landowners in hogicide on their own land. “It will take support and cooperation from all Missouri landowners to eliminate feral hogs from the state,” says the Department’s annual report.

 

Mike Bowdenchuk, from Texas’s wildlife agency, told Missouri lawmakers bluntly, “you can’t hunt your way out of this problem.” He said Texas had tried the hunting solution but only encouraged a hunting industry and the state now has millions of the destructive animals that caused an estimated $89,000,000 in damage in 2019 alone. He said “Allowing people to hunt them, putting a meat market in there and not regulating the movement of pigs allowed us to go from a few thousand pigs to 2,600,000 to 3,000,000 pigs. That’s a train wreck.”

 

Almost predictably, a relative newcomer to the Missouri House of Representatives, Chris Dinkins, representing a Southeast Ozark district, has become the champion of the feral hog hunters by introducing a bill that would decimate the state’s landmark conservation sales tax which finances what is universally acknowledged as the finest conservation program in the nation. The tax, constitutionally dedicated and insulated from legislative interference, passed in 1976 after a successful initiative petition drive put it on the ballot, much to the consternation of the state’s perennially greedy legislators who resent any money they can’t finagle.

 

Since the passage of the sales tax, the money has financed programs too numerous to list here but all to the benefit of Missouri’s outdoor oriented and enthusiastic citizenry. There have been numerous attempts by the legislature to overturn the will of the people, but all have failed. But you never know—in an era of political upheaval anything is possible. That a small group of special interest hog hunters, of whom my poaching lawbreaker of years back likely is symptomatic, could overturn nearly half a century of the country’s best and most progressive wildlife program seems impossible…. But even the possibility is frightening. All conservation groups, as well as other interested agencies agree that trapping is the key to elimination of feral hogs and that hog hunting is a highway to hog hell.

 

Mississippi State University has detailed instructions for building various hog traps, ranging from box and wire cage enclosures to larger ones intended to trap sounders. The drawback to a box trap or wire trap is that it is single piggy intended and both time and labor intensive. The obvious advantage to a sounder trap is that it captures several piggies at once and Mississippi State is sympathetic enough to include instructions on how to approach the trapped animals without traumatizing them and then how to send them to hog heaven “humanely”. The Mississippians even include instructions on type of ammunition and gun to use, as well as where to place a lethal bullet—and caution that you shouldn’t poke the gun into the enclosure where an aggressive or panicked animal can jostle the gun so that you wind up shooting yourself or a fellow trapper. Good advice all around.

 

Museums specializing in antiquities showcase weapons intended in medieval times to dispatch Eurasian boars which can be as formidable as any of the fabled dangerous animals of Africa. A true Eurasian (Russian if you prefer) boar has a hide that is almost impervious to any small caliber bullet or anything but the keenest arrow, as well as a pair of tusks fully capable of disemboweling anyone or anything foolish enough to get too close. In the Middle Ages, boar hunting consisted of boar hounds driving the animal to bay after which hunters on foot would use lances or mounted hunters swords to kill the beast. It was a sport mostly confined to the nobility, so cherished that kings and princes forbade peasants from fencing their cropfields to keep marauding hogs out. Today, one Internet site recommends fencing your garden plot, either with or without electricity, with a fence at least three feet high to prevent agile piggies from invading. I can’t even keep box turtles from somehow finding a way through the fence around our garden. I can’t imagine that a determined hog wouldn’t find a garden fence a minor inconvenience en route to a dinner appointment.  Favored boar hounds sometimes were clad in suits of armor to save them from goring by an enraged boar. Today one of the most effective’s feral hog hunting hounds is (are you ready for this?) The dachshund.

 

Once a feral hog has been dispatched to piggy paradise, the question becomes what to do with the body. One suggested remedy is simply to leave it where it drops, relying on scavengers to pick over the remains until nothing is left. But there are obvious drawbacks to this solution— dead hogs are less than aromatic, the family dog is every bit as attracted by defunct  hog as is the local coyote or buzzard. A second solution, favored by animal control folks is to bury the carcass. Labor-intensive, but effective as long as scavengers don’t dig it up.  One recommendation is for composting, although I think I would have second thoughts about snacking on root vegetables raised on dead hog compost soil. Or, you can call a dead animal disposal operation to give you that out of sight out of mind feeling.

 

People talk about “being in hog heaven.” But, as far as the state of Missouri is concerned it’s more like “being in hog hell.” Some folks actually eat feral hogs, ignoring the possibility of disease such as trichinosis (cooking to an internal temperature of 160° supposedly kills potential pathogens). Suckling piglet might well be a delicacy, but references say that cooking old boar both smells and tastes pretty rank. I think I’d rather leave a defunct feral hog as a scavenger smorgasbord or find a couple of shovels and a willing helper to inter the defunct porker.

 

Afterword:                                

 

I commented to representative Dinkins by email concluding , “stay out of conservation areas where you clearly don’t know what you’re talking about and where you have no business being.” I did not mean she has no business being in the legislature although we probably can argue about that point too, but that she has no business claiming expertise over conservationists with long experience in combating the feral hog situation.

 

 I received the following gracious (sarcasm intended) reply: “Unfortunately, you did not leave your phone number for a discussion with your comment so I suppose I must respond on here. As the old saying goes, “Follow the Money”.  I guess that also applies in this case too seeing MDC buttered your bread for so many years. As to your statement, “where you have no business being.” I am a Representative of the people. The people I represent have a different view than you and I plan to continue to represent the people that elected me. When they go to the cemetery and see their loved ones grave destroyed they do not think MDC is so wonderful. When their livelihood and their ability to provide for their family is at stake, they do not think MDC is doing such a wonderful job. So until you come to my district and see and talk with the people, I respectfully request that you keep your biased opinion to yourself and I will continue to work for the people who sent me to do just that.”

 

I doubt that those who voted her into office were exclusively hog hunters.  I can’t even begin to analyze her loopy justification that she represents her constituents (who, according to her, have loved ones all apparently buried in one grave). And it’s all the fault of the Conservation Department. I worked 21 years for the Department; she has represented her district for two. And the Conservation Department, proposed by citizen initiative and affirmed by all the state’s voters, has existed for 83 years. Do the math.

 

Forgive me if I consider this just another attempt by a Missouri legislator to overturn the will of the people of all the state who created the Department funding and independence by initiative petition in 1936 and again in 1976 specifically to put wildlife management in the hands of professional wildlife managers and insulate it from the uninformed and ignorant grasp of  greedy legislators.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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