By TIM ALEXANDER
LEWISTOWN, Ill. — Fulton County’s population of free-ranging feral hogs is booming, causing increased damage to crops, wildlife and natural resources, according to the county’s Farm Bureau (FCFB) manager.
“The Illinois Department of Natural Resources (DNR) estimates through use of night photography, that as many as 3,000 feral hogs are running loose in southern Fulton County,” said Elaine Stone of the FCFB.
She said the largest cluster of animals appears to be located south of Interstate 95 in the Bernadotte-Ipava-Table Grove area. “None have been reported north of I-95,” she added.
The question of how the rooting animals – known for decimating crop fields and contributing to erosion – arrived in the central Illinois county is open for conjecture. “There are theories they could have escaped from a confinement or pasture environment, but I don’t know a whole lot of farmers who would let that happen,” said Stone.
“I think that the theory they escaped or were turned loose from a controlled hunting situation is probably more likely.”
Just a few years ago the rumor of feral hogs roaming the woods in picturesque Fulton County, a sparsely-populated, agrarian district known for its annual Spoon River Drive festival, seemed outrageous to residents. But when a farmer came to Stone and the FCFB a little over the year ago with an eyewitness account of a pack of hogs rooting his crop field, FCFB leaders took action.
A wildlife specialist with the USDA, Brain Cobban, came to Fulton County to meet with the landowner and others who stepped forward after encountering the animals.
They are native to Eurasia, but are also found in at least 35 states and 32 Illinois counties, most in the southern areas of the state.
Cobban came back to Lewiston again recently to lead a meeting with landowners interested in getting their feral hog problems under control.
The topic of the FCFB’s yearlong effort combating the destructive animals came up during the 2012 annual meeting of the Illinois Farm Bureau (IFB) recently in Chicago. Because there is currently no law on the books in Illinois to prevent the abandonment or “dumping” of pigs, the IFB could decide to pursue legislation barring the act in the future.
“Because we’ve seen what a problem it could cause, there has been some discussion from county Farm Bureau leaders about working towards legislation to put preventive measures in place,” Stone said.
Cobban possesses photos taken of agricultural damage done by Fulton County’s feral hogs, including images of a half-acre of cropland apparently rooted by wild hogs and of an 18-inch deep rut in another field. Other photos depict trees with their bark stripped – again, presumably by hogs.
Cobban is using DNR grant money to assist Fulton County landowners in trapping the animals, according to Stone, and the results have so far been encouraging. Fifteen hogs were captured in a single pen recently, bringing the number of animals trapped in the past year in the county to 184.
It is perfectly legal to trap or shoot the animals as a landowner, though Stone suggests caution if farmers choose the latter method of population control.
“There is no season and no restriction. It is legal to shoot them and there is a lot of enthusiasm for shooting them as a sport,” she said. “We were cautioned against shooting them because it can disperse the herd. If you can shoot every (hog) you see, the (USDA) recommends shooting them.”
There are collateral issues to consider in addition to damage to crops and natural resources, Stone added. “The farmers who have acknowledged the presence of the hogs on their farms have noticed the deer and the wild turkeys they used to hunt are not coming back.
“There is also the disease and parasite issues. Wildlife specialists fear these hogs might re-introduce some of the diseases that farmers had gotten control of, such as brucellosis.”
The animals are known to carry at least 30 diseases that pose a risk for humans, livestock, wildlife and pets, according to the USDA, and can prey on nesting ground birds, amphibians, reptiles and other wildlife.
Cobban, the IDNR and the FCFB are currently focusing on reaching out to more Fulton County farmers who will cooperate with trapping on their land. The hogs reproduce so rapidly that USDA estimates 70 percent of a population must be removed just to keep the herd count at status quo, Stone said.
Hunters, farmers and others who see free-ranging feral hogs anywhere in Illinois should report the sighting to the DNR Division of Wildlife Resources, at 217-785-2511.