Feral pigs running wild in Colorado

Feral pigs running wild in Colorado

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Feral hogs are seen in Sand Creek in Kiowa County, in southeastern Colorado, May 3, 2006. Feral hogs, nasty, hyperadaptable, eating, rooting, wrecking machines, are Colorado's newest invaders. They've set up shop in southeastern Colorado' in recent years, numbering from a few dozen to a few hundred, depending on whose count you accept. No one knows for sure. (AP Photo/Rocky Mountain News, George Kochaniec, Jr)

Jake Fox, 12, rests his rifle on a fencepost while scouting for feral hogs on his Dad's ranch near Chivington, Colo., May 3,2006. Feral hogs are starting to colonize in S.E. Colorado and wildlife biologists fear the hogs will eventually explode into an invasive force that can't be contained. (AP Photo/The Rocky Mountain News, George Kochaniec, Jr)

EADS, Colo. - They stalk the landscape by night, tusked behemoths that devour crops and critters alike. "A real nightmare," farmer Burl Scherler calls them. Reservoirs of disease. Rural vandals on four fat, super-powered legs.

A few county roads west, rancher Art Fox loves 'em. Likes to watch them sneak through the brush. Sets out grain so they don't go hungry. Hunts them. Eats them. Roasts them on holidays and serves them up to eager neighbors.

Feral hogs - nasty, hyperadaptable, eating, rooting, wrecking machines - are Colorado's newest invaders. They've set up shop in southeastern Colorado's Kiowa County in recent years, numbering from a few dozen to a few hundred, depending on whose count you accept. No one knows for sure.

Here, they survive on massive swaths of private land, off-limits to wildlife managers, wallowing in the muddy trickles of Big Sandy Creek by day and venturing into farm fields, quail nests and ranch land by night, wreaking their own kind of environmental havoc along the way.

"They knock the crops down, eat them, roll around in them," gripes Scherler, who saw a sow mow down her own alienlike crop circle in his cornfield to build a nest for her babies.

"Oh, it wasn't real serious. But you can tell, it's going to be if they get thicker. The more of them you get, the more of a problem it will be. They're vicious. They're big rodents."

The upshot: Colorado finds itself at the edges of an infestation that long ago overwhelmed wildlife managers across the Southeast and Texas, where wild hogs are so rampant and destructive that governments use aerial gunners to try (and fail) to keep them in check.

Not everyone thinks this is a bad thing.

The pro-hog constituency, represented by hunters and landowners (who sell access to hunters), say the whip-smart swine make for a sporting chase, a filling meal and a snorting good time.

"When you're hunting them, you try to sneak up on them. You get to where they're supposed to be, and they're gone," said Fox, a rancher and horse trainer whose battered Ford truck has a dashboard lined with bullet boxes and a cab littered with guns.

Should he hunger for a hog, Fox is better prepared than a Boy Scout.

Fox loves their crafty smarts. "Even a domestic pig is an intelligent animal," he said.

So when you turn them loose - watch out.

"They get out here where they have to think, and they figure it out."

Apparently so.

According to an epic piece in The New Yorker magazine last year, researchers in South Carolina found that catching wild hogs in traps required 29 man-hours per animal. In other words, the pigs ain't dumb.

Even the folks who hate them kind of admire them.

And there seems to be more and more to admire. Feral hogs are colonizing regions across the country.

One recent federal survey puts them in 31 states - and counting. Experts say they'll eventually wind up in all 50.

The federal government says about 4 million wild hogs populate the country.

And in some states, the creatures have completely dug in.

In places, including California, Florida, Hawaii, South Carolina and Texas, the hogs' Darwinian survival abilities are stuff of legend - and concern.

Wildlife managers in South Carolina are scrambling to slow the pigs in their raids of loggerhead sea turtle nests, when they snarf down hatchlings by the thousands.

Near Houston, officials want trappers to stop the hogs from shredding artificial wetlands built to offset impacts of development.

In rural Texas, wildlife agents in 2005 resorted to neck snares, leaving more than 3,000 hogs to asphyxiate themselves in a device that chokes harder the more the animal struggles.

On the Channel Islands off California, conservationists and government agencies hired a New Zealand company to trap, shoot - even unleash dogs and helicopters - to eradicate wild pigs threatening some 10 species, including the endangered Santa Cruz island fox.

Hogs have yet to achieve this kind of notoriety in southeast Colorado, where their arrival appears to be something of a fluke.

The most oft-told story involves a truck moving hogs, perhaps to their date with the slaughterhouse.

The driver, by some accounts, stopped along Colorado 96 east of Eads to do some personal business, giving a small group of pigs the opening they needed: an unlatched door on the rear of the vehicle.

They leaped into the countryside, winning freedom from a Saran-wrapped future and establishing their own kind of Jamestown outside Eads.

In the four or five years since, the pig stories have grown, along with the alleged size of the creatures (from 200 to 300 pounds, biologists say, and 500 to 600 pounds in some cases, according to local lore).

Once domestic hogs dash into the wild, the creatures go feral within three generations, the locals say, though no one really knows.

But at two litters a year (five to seven piglets each, on average), it probably doesn't take long.

Separating true crimes from tall tales isn't easy, but in Kiowa County pigs have been blamed for tearing down cattle fencing, uprooting crops - sunflower, milo, corn, wheat - spreading noxious weeds.

Why, the pigs have even torn up the boundary flags marking an experimental crop plot laid out by Colorado State University.

They'll eat anything.

Cory Chick, the district wildlife manager for the Colorado Division of Wildlife, said he happened upon a pack of pigs devouring a rotting cow carcass. Game birds, such as the plover, quail and rare prairie chicken, famous for its mating dance, are at risk.

As are their young, born or unborn, still in the egg.

The pigs' presence means Colorado's rare swift fox has a new competitor for food.

The hogs, with their strength, speed and curved tusks, can even take down fawns, an unhappy prospect for the region's deer population (which some wildlife-weary farmers would just as soon see shrink anyway).

"A hog can root up a yard around your buildings, stomp down your crops, eat big holes, make a mess," said Scherler, a dryland farmer in Kiowa County for more than three decades, always awaiting the next curveball from Mother Nature. "Would you like hogs in your yard?"

Even the rangers at National Park Service fear the pigs could run wild at the Sand Creek Massacre site near Eads, uprooting artifacts or human remains left over from Col. John Chivington's slaughter of 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians encamped near the Big Sandy Creek in 1864.

"It's a big concern, because they do root, they dig holes; the cultural resource of the massacre site itself is jeopardized," said park ranger Karl Zimmerman. "Our desire is not to have them."

The big worry for wildlife managers: the pigs romping along the Big Sandy will wander several miles south, to the Arkansas River.

There, amid thick riverside cover, including impenetrable groves of tamarisk, the hogs would be home free - invasive hard-to-kill animals living amid invasive, impossible-to-kill shrubs.

"They get into the Arkansas, and they won't be able to control them - that's the potential the locals here don't realize," said Chick.

"It doesn't take much for them to get down to the river and pose a much bigger problem."

Frowning, too, are government veterinarians, who fret over an array of animal diseases, including pseudo rabies and brucellosis.

Pigs are known to carry both. So far, though, tissue samples collected from the Eads-area feral hogs haven't tested positive for any fearsome bugs.

The presence of the pigs raises a set of tricky questions about what, if anything, the authorities can do.

The answers, appropriately for pigs, are as clear as mud.

One has to begin by asking what, exactly, is a feral pig? A feral pig, according to state and federal agriculture regulations, is any pig that escaped from behind an enclosed area.

But today's feral pigs made no such escapes. Their ancestors did. Does that make them domestic or wild? Or somewhere in-between?

"They're not wildlife," said Michael Seraphin, a spokesman for the Division of Wildlife, "so they don't fall under our jurisdiction, which kind of puts us in a bad spot."

Can anyone legally own one? Owning or possessing wild pigs is prohibited under Division of Wildlife regulations.

So if they're not wildlife, and not owned, and the Division of Wildlife isn't responsible, what about the state Department of Agriculture?

Part of the agency's mission is protecting livestock from disease. But the hogs tested haven't been found to carry any.

Carl Heckendorf, an animal disease expert for the state agency, said officials are in a holding pattern with the hogs. They're watching for a population increase, a geographical spread, major property damage - such as rooting up the Sand Creek massacre site - or the appearance of disease.

Part of Heckendorf thinks it would be wise to wipe 'em out now, stop a problem before it starts.

But government has to walk a careful line, avoiding a militant response that might clean out the pigs, but anger the locals, he said, albeit in a more diplomatic way.

He cites a small set of facts to justify the hands-off approach: "These pigs are hunted locally, and their population is pretty well controlled," Heckendorf said. "We had figures last year of around 65 pigs, and 45 have been harvested since then."

In other words, the residents are keeping the pigs in check. No need to overreact to what may be a small invasion force.

Agriculture authorities will re-examine the situation in a year, he said.

But keeping the pigs around creates another problem, one already sprouting in Eads: A core group of locals is growing attached to them. Just as has happened around the country, pro-pig elements are rising up in defense of the hogs as their new favorite hunting target.

In Texas, the pigs so overwhelmed wildlife managers that they eventually declared the creatures a game animal. Several Internet sites are devoted to hog-hunting groups in Texas.

With liberal use of exclamation points, one advertises that state biologists estimate the hog population in Texas is near 2 million!

Enumerating the reasons hogs make great hunting, the site notes a study that finds pigs are "the second smartest animal behind only chimpanzees."

It continues, noting that hog hunting is a year-round sport in Texas. "That means no need to wait for deer season to warm up the gun barrel" (inexplicably, no exclamation mark here).

Those backing the pigs in Eads aren't nearly so organized. No Web sites anyway. But their enthusiasm worries state officials.

Neither agents for the Division of Wildlife nor the state agriculture department have the legal ability to pour onto private land and take out the pigs, at least not yet, even though wildlife managers consider them an invasive species.

"You can't come into this part of the state and introduce another species just because you can do it," said Chick of the DOW. "If we let everyone come in and introduce their own exotic species - it's messing with the (ecological) web."

But even some initially leery have found a place in their heart for a creature with uncanny survival instincts.

"I think they should be kept thinned, so they don't become 500 head of hogs out there," said Honey Belle Dixon, who, along with her husband, Jack, runs about 100 cattle on land east of Eads, where the pigs have roamed.

Even so, the creatures impress her: "I think it's amazing they can survive out there themselves and get whatever they do to eat, and have their babies and everything," she said.

"I don't want the whole herd destroyed."

No one's taken a poll, but asking around and you get the sense August Kern, a farmer near Cheyenne Wells, voices an equally popular counterview.

"I'd as soon they kill 'em off; they're not supposed to be here in the first place," Kern said.

"We got enough wild animals that run around that are meat-eaters without having some damn wild hogs," apparently referring to coyotes, of which Kern said there are also too many.

Even so, there are still fears worse than pigs. Said Kern: "I just hope to hell those goddamn wolves never get down here."

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