Hogs Running Wild
Free-roaming feral hogs have expanded their range into Illinois.
STORY BY WILLIAM MCCLAIN AND TERRY ESKER
There were no fences to keep hogs contained during pioneer times. They ran wild throughout the woods. They became wary and would run at the sight or sound of people. This caused some individuals to claim that they could run faster than a greyhound and leap over the tallest of fences in a single bound. They would forage through the woods, but they were heard more often than seen. During the fall months, they gorged themselves on acorns. As cooler weather approached, they nestled together to keep warm in nests of leaves on the forest floor.
With the invention of barbed wire during the late 1800s, it became much easier to confine hogs. After installing this new fence, one pioneer exclaimed in a proud voice: "Not only do you know where your hogs are, you know where they are not."
Within a few years, free-roaming hogs were only a memory of the older residents.
More than a hundred years passed before DNR wildlife biologists reported free-roaming or feral hogs in Union County in 1993. Since then, additional reports have surfaced from Gallatin, Hardin, Johnson, Lawrence, Massac, Jackson, Pulaski and Pope counties, most of which are in the rugged, sparsely populated hill country of southern Illinois.
What are feral hogs? They could be any free-roaming domestic swine, European wild boar or any of their hybrids. In the wild, they are nearly impossible to distinguish. Feral hogs have been around a long time in Texas and other southern states. Due to the high densities of hogs in these states, they are hunted as game animals. Recent evidence suggests that feral hogs are expanding their ranges northward into Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. Like other invasive non-native animals, there are no natural enemies to limit their population growth.
Based on studies of the behavior of these hogs, their daily activities range over an area believed to be about eight square miles in size. However, this varies with food availability and population densities. Activity is highest at night during the summer months, but this changes to daytime during winter months. Water sources, such as streams or ponds, are used extensively during warm weather. Feral hogs mature quickly, and may begin having litters at the age of one year, with a maximum life expectancy of about 11 years. Although the origin of the hogs in southern Illinois remains uncertain, it is likely some are domestic swine that have escaped the confines of barbed wire fences. There is also some speculation that European wild boars have been illegally released in Illinois, but there is no confirmation of a release at this time.
In order to assess the feral hog densities in southern Illinois, the Cooperative Wildlife Laboratory at Southern Illinois University conducted a preliminary study. It concluded that feral hogs are now clearly established as an exotic member of the fauna of Illinois, but their present distribution and density are only partially known.
There are hogs in the woods in southern Illinois. But they were there before, so why should there be any concern about them now? For one thing, our forest resources are not as extensive as they were in the 1800s. The rooting and wallowing of feral hogs damages vegetation and causes erosion and stream sedimentation. Like their ancestors during pioneer times, acorns and other mast remains
their favorite food. Unfortunately it also happens to be an important food of deer, turkeys, squirrels and other wildlife. With their keen sense of smell, feral hogs can completely deplete an area of acorns and nuts, leaving almost none for the native animals that depend on this important food source. During times of drought when other food is in short supply, feral hogs can become predators of wild turkey nests.
These hogs also are known to carry diseases which could affect both animals and humans. Diseases, such as brucellosis and pseudorabies, are capable of infecting domestic hogs. However, there is no confirmation at this time that any of the feral hogs in southern Illinois have these diseases. In other states, feral hogs are known to damage crops, fences, pastures and watering sites. In some parts of Texas they are a major predator of young lambs.
While feral hogs could provide sport hunting, most states consider these animals to be nothing more than a liability due to the environmental damage they create and their potential to spread disease.
What is the future of the feral hog population in Illinois? Like the times before barbed wire fences, we don't know where the hogs are located. We do know the feral hog populations are small, scattered and isolated, making them difficult to locate, much less hunt.
Landowners who have the opportunity to eliminate these animals from their land should do so, however, because their removal may prevent more serious problems in the future. Hunting of these hogs is allowed year-round. Although no hunting license is required, shooters must be able to distinguish feral hogs from domestic ones and have permission to be on a landowner's property.
The Division of Wildlife Resources would like to know about sightings of feral hogs and their activities. You can report to DNR by calling (217) 782-6384.
William McClain is the Natural Areas Stewardship Program manager in DNR's Division of Natural Heritage. Terry Esker is a natural heritage district biologist.