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Taking to the skies to take feral hogs
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Taking to the skies to take feral hogs

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Missouri took another step forward this month in the fight to eliminate invasive feral hogs when the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) moved forward with prohibiting the hunting of feral hogs on public land in the Mark Twain National Forest.

Trails at Taum Sauk Mountain and Johnson’s Shut-Ins are closed this week, as federal agencies take to the skies in helicopters to eradicate the wild hogs that have cost the state millions of dollars in damage to agricultural, private and park lands.

Feral hogs have been roaming parts of Missouri for centuries. Their numbers began to explode in the 1990s when hog hunting for recreation began to gain popularity. Groups began raising and promoting Russian and European wild boar as a form of alternative agriculture and for hunting on captive facilities. It wasn't long before many of these hogs escaped or were released intentionally on public land.

According to the Missouri Department of Conservation, feral hogs are known to carry diseases such as swine brucellosis, pseudorabies, trichinosis, and leptospirosis which, if it manages to spread to domestic pig and hog concerns, could devastate the agriculture industry.

Because feral hogs are highly adaptable animals and prolific breeders, their numbers grow at an alarming rate. One sow can give birth to two litters of about six piglets twice per year, resulting in a population growth rate of about 166% per year.

It’s been a fight to control their numbers ever since, and resulted in the Feral Hog Elimination Partnership. USDA, Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC), Department of Natural Resources and other agencies frequently partner on hog eradication efforts and urge anyone witnessing hog releases to contact their agencies immediately.

At Johnson's Shut-Ins, personnel with the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) program, particularly Wildlife Services, will fly their helicopters over the seasonally-leafless terrain to scout for the herds and eliminate all they can.

Travis Guerrant, state director over Missouri and Iowa, is a certified wildlife biologist with USDA APHIS Wildlife Service. He said estimating feral swine population numbers is very difficult and would require large amounts of funding to do accurately.

“The Missouri Feral Hog Partnership decided collectively to invest the limited funds we had available into elimination efforts instead of population modeling for feral swine,” he said. “To document progress, we focus on eliminating feral swine from watersheds or drainages systematically across the state.”

As progress is made, he said, staff and assets move on to the next watershed where feral swine exist.

“We also continue to monitor the areas where we have eliminated feral swine for two years with bait, cameras, and scouting for signs,” he said. “If we find feral swine have reestablished in an area we quickly work to eliminate them again.”

Guerrant said, when conducting operational work with a helicopter, they wait until most of the leaves have fallen and they’re generally targeting hard-to-reach, wilderness areas, or, even more importantly, areas in which the feral hog population is almost completely eradicated.

The helicopters conducting the work in Missouri are owned by USDA APHIS Wildlife Services and are flown by pilots employed by the agency. A Wildlife Services technician or biologist conducts the removal activities. With backgrounds in wildlife or natural resource management, the shooters have completed NRA certification and extensive training in aerial wildlife damage management operations. They have passed firearms safety and proficiency qualifications established by the agency as well as comprehensive background checks and drug testing, Guerrant said, adding that Wildlife Services provides annual recurring training and proficiency checks to all pilots and crew members involved in aerial operations.

With the USFS’s closure of feral hog hunting in Mark Twain National Forest, they also announced the allowance of opportunistic take of feral hogs in the forest during all deer and turkey hunting seasons. Only those hunters with an unfilled permit in compliance with the permit conditions may take hogs. Most public land agencies had already closed feral hog hunting in 2016 after 25 years of allowing hog hunting while trapping only increased the range of feral hogs in Missouri.

“We received and reviewed more than a thousand comments from our public outreach around this decision,” said Tony Crump, deputy forest supervisor for Mark Twain National Forest. “By allowing for opportunistic take during all deer and turkey hunting seasons, we incorporated public feedback to most effectively remove these invasive pigs from Missouri in alignment with the Missouri Feral Hog Elimination Partnership.”

With the announcement, the Conservation Commission has directed the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) to propose regulation changes identical to the USFS regulation to ensure consistency of feral hog regulations on USFS and MDC managed lands by allowing for the opportunistic take of feral hogs during all deer and turkey hunting seasons. While the USFS announcement is effective immediately on the Mark Twain National Forest and will apply to the rest of the of the 2019-2020 deer season, the change will not be in place for the 2019-2020 alternative methods and archery hunting season on MDC lands.

Opportunistic take refers to takings that result from, but are not the purpose of, carrying out an otherwise lawful activity. In this case, it allows for a person possessing an unfilled deer or turkey hunting permit to opportunistically take feral hogs while in pursuit of deer or turkey during the hunting season.

“The closure of the Mark Twain National Forest to feral hog hunting is a positive move toward the elimination of this destructive pest from our state,” said MDC Director Sara Parker Pauley. “We have already seen significant progress on public land around Truman and Stockton Reservoirs where the no hunting regulation has been in place since 2016.”

With the USFS announcement, the Missouri Feral Hog Elimination Partnership has developed an operational plan that will provide additional staff and resources on private and public land around Mark Twain. Currently, the Conservation Commission is providing $1.8 million annually to USDA for trapping services, and MDC staff contribute more than 25,000 hours annually towards elimination efforts on private and public land. Other agencies are contributing staff and resources and will be stepping up their effort to fight the battle against feral hogs. The new plan will reassign staff from across the state to help with feral hog removal efforts in southern Missouri.

For information about MDC efforts to eliminate feral hogs go to www.mdc.mo.gov/feralhog.

For more information about the Mark Twain feral hog hunting closure order go to https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/mtnf/landmanagement/?cid=FSEPRD629017. For information about MDC’s regulatory process, go to https://mdc.mo.gov/about-us/about-regulations.

Sarah Haas is the assistant editor for the Daily Journal. She can be reached at 573-518-3617 or at shaas@dailyjournalonline.com.

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