I’m sure we all know the whitetail deer to be North America’s most populous big game animal, currently estimated as high as 35 million. But which comes next? We’ve done a pretty good job over the past century. Black bear, caribou, elk and mule deer all top a million (some more than two million), so they’re all candidates, right? Not even close! Although neither native nor descended from pure wild stock, America’s free-range feral hog population is now estimated at between eight and nine million. Wow!
As with all animal populations that are either expanding or dwindling, infrequent sightings of wandering individuals doesn’t mean there’s a breeding population, but wild hogs have now been sighted in all 48 Continental states, and well up into southern Canada. The primary established populations are now found from Texas and Oklahoma east to the Gulf Coast, and in California. The feral hog, however, is definitely on the march, expanding northward across the Midwest and up the Pacific Coast. Some states are actively trying to reduce them or keep them out; others are ignoring the problem, hoping it will go away. Feral hogs are known to be exceptionally prolific, and are proving both adaptive and resilient; chances are they aren’t going to go away!
On the one hand, they are definitely a problem. Competition with native wildlife is a long-term concern. Actual impact, if any, isn’t yet understood, but it is known that wild hogs are voracious and destructive in their feeding habits, now causing some two billion dollars annually in agricultural losses and related damage.
When it comes to hogs, my native state of Kansas is once again a border state, now receiving hogs from Oklahoma and southern Missouri. Kansas doesn’t want them, but rather than institute a wide-open season as some states have, only landowners and their agents are currently allowed to shoot hogs. This is a well-studied response because, while Kansas doesn’t want hogs, they also don’t want enterprising would-be pig guides speeding their expansion by introducing them! Whether wanted or not, feral hogs are already established along various river systems in southern Kansas. We haven’t yet seen any hog sign near my farm in southeastern Kansas, but landowners have shot a few crop-raiders within ten miles. With our network of small, timber-lined rivers, it seems almost inevitable that we will have them…maybe sooner than we think.
This brings up a great dichotomy in the pig explosion. My farming neighbors are terrified that the pigs are coming, not quite so bad as the zombie apocalypse but close. I don’t blame them; the damage a herd of pigs can do to a grain field in just one night is shocking. On the other hand, as a hunter, I sort of look forward to having them! That’s not a popular opinion, so generally I keep it to myself, but for America’s hunters the pig apocalypse has created tremendous opportunity, almost its own culture, and certainly a mini-industry with hog calls, specialized scopes, ammo and more.
Feral hogs have been established in California for decades. They now occur in all counties, but our place on the Central Coast has one of the longest-established populations. Conditions probably aren’t perfect, so the population ebbs and flows depending on rainfall. After several drought years they’re down now, but just a few years ago at least a dozen outfitters in our area made all or most of their living guiding pig hunters. It was an ideal situation (and will be again). In our area hunters from both the Bay Area and southern California, starved for opportunity, can come up for a weekend, enjoy an inexpensive and successful hunt, and take home some great pork. Rather than try to eradicate hogs, California regulated them, decreeing them bona fide big-game animals, requiring a hunting license and, in time, specific pig tags.
At the same time, and for a variety of reasons, California’s deer herd has collapsed and hunter interest has waned. For many years now the wild hog has been the Golden State’s most important big-game animal. To my knowledge this has not yet been recognized in any Southeastern state, but if you consider the numbers, it’s surely coming. Let’s take my good friend Zack Aultman’s place as a microcosm. He and his family have a large tract of classic pine forest in southern Georgia. Managed primarily for timber, they’ve got great whitetail hunting and every few years I manage to slip down there.
Prior to selling his business, Aultman took a number of clients whitetail hunting. In those years I suppose he was taking a very few dozen bucks and a larger number of does, with the harvest perhaps reduced a bit these days. I’ve been hunting there off and on for nearly 15 years. Hogs were always present but, a decade ago, rarely seen. Since hogs are always in season (and whitetails obviously are not) the pig harvest has long exceeded the deer harvest…but nothing like now. I hadn’t made it down for several seasons, and when I was there recently I was shocked.
It seems the pigs have exploded. Sign is everywhere and sightings common…but while the deer harvest has remained more or less constant, for the past few years several hundred hogs have been taken annually…with no apparent dent in the numbers! So which is more important, the deer or the hogs? To a deer hunter that’s an easy answer, but if you’re making ammunition or sausage, think about it!
It was the end of deer season when I was there, but I was lucky and took a nice buck…and then I did my duty and got serious about hog hunting. It wasn’t tough duty, honest. I like hunting hogs, and have tremendous respect for the way they soak up foot-pounds. Right now, by survey, we reckon we have 10 million deer hunters, still the backbone of America’s hunting culture. We don’t know how many pig hunters we have, but the numbers are growing, and I’m not the least ashamed to be among them.–Craig Boddington