By CELESTE BAUMGARTNER
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Feral swine are highly mobile disease reservoirs. They can carry up to 30 significant viral and bacterial diseases and as many as 37 parasites. That’s why in the Midwest and nationally the USDA Wildlife Services is checking up on the critters, according to Craig Hicks, wildlife disease biologist in Ohio with the USDA Wildlife Services.
“Feral swine cause damage to American agriculture, threaten native wildlife and habitat and pose a risk to human health, safety and property,” Hicks said.
“They threaten the commercial swine industry with possible disease incursions.”
The diseases of current focus within the Wildlife Service’s feral swine study are swine brucellosis, pseudorabies virus, classical swine fever, and several other diseases that affect humans, pets and livestock, Hicks said.
In 1988, the feral swine population was about 1 million and limited to 15 southern states. Now, there are probably 4 million throughout the country and more than 30 states have feral swine populations in the United States.
The swine are a nonnative invasive species, Hicks said. They are a mix of escapees from domestic and commercial swine operations. Others have been either intentionally-released or have escaped from hunting preserves.
“Then to complicate it more some people have illegally captured them from other states, maybe in the south, and released them up here for hunting opportunities,” Hicks said.
Signs of the presence of feral swine include mud wallows, muddy rub marks on trees, rooting in sod, the forest floor, or cropland, and damage to standing crops, he said.
“Standing corn will look like a steam roller went through,” said Hicks who, referring to their rooting, called the critters “living rototillers.”
It has been estimated that each feral swine causes on average at least $200 in direct property damage annually, Hicks said. That doesn’t include additional costs that would be associated with these animals carrying disease to livestock or the damage they do to the native ecosystem.
A problem in the Midwest is that many hunters see feral swine as a new hunting opportunity, Hicks said.
“They’re hesitant to give us these locations because they think we’re going to come in and remove them all,” he said. “I think we underestimate how many are here because not everybody reports when they see them.”
Feral swine are safe to eat, but Hicks encourages hunters to wear rubber gloves when field dressing and handling the raw materials of these animals. They should cook the meat to an internal temperature of 165 degrees and wash pans and all cooking and butchering utensils thoroughly after contact with the raw meat.
“As long as they practice those steps, the meat is safe,” Hicks said.
The average size of the swine in the Midwest that are not receiving supplemental feedings, but are truly feral, is about 150 to 200 pounds, Hicks said.
Anyone in the United States who is having trouble with feral swine can telephone the USDA Wildlife Services at 866-487-3297, and be linked directly to an office where they can reach their state wildlife disease biologist.
“So if a farmer is having trouble, and they contact us we can go out and be sure it is definitely hogs damage,” Hicks said. “We will set a trap and the farmer can help us check that trap. Feral swine captured will be humanely euthanized and samples will be collected from each animal. Once we’ve collected the samples, the farmer can keep the carcass for consumption.”