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Unwelcome Invaders: Wild Pigs Pose a Serious New Threat to Idaho

Exotic species threatens agriculture, the environment and wildlife

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Somewhere in the High Desert scrub of Southern Idaho lurks a threat that has wildlife and public land managers nervous. They're nervous that somewhere, amid the sagebrush, grasses, brambles and cattails a threat is multiplying, and if they fail to take control of the situation now, it could turn into a nightmare not only for them, but landowners, farmers, ranchers, hunters, fishermen and the state.

This threat isn't one of the more notorious or controversial wildlife species. It has nothing to do with developers. It comes with a snout.

Other parts of the country are already feeling the jarring blow of wild pigs--also called feral hogs when the pigs are escaped domestic swine--with some of the hardest-hit areas spending tens of millions each year just trying to keep problems from getting any bigger. Now, with confirmed sightings of wild pigs near Bruneau, officials in Idaho are trying to stop the issue before a population has the chance to take root.

The idea of pigs wandering around the desert hardly seems like a threat to most people who imagine rotund, pink barnyard creatures. But these little piggies are hardly harmless. Wild pigs can annihilate crops, destroy riparian areas, decimate wild bird populations, be a threat to both livestock and wildlife, and have the potential to carry a variety of diseases that pose a risk to both domestic and wild animals, and in some cases, humans.

"It's an ecological train wreck," said Mike Bodenchuk, state director for the Texas Wildlife Services Program, the agency that oversees control efforts in the Lone Star State.

Bodenchuk is at the center of the storm when it comes to the increasing problem of wild pigs in the United States. Researchers now estimate wild pigs are in 39 states. While getting a population estimate for a species that is notoriously smart, evasive and can become nocturnal is difficult, Texas authorities believe there are between 2 million and 3 million wild pigs in Texas alone. To put that number in context, Bodenchuk points to the fact that there are roughly 4 million white-tailed deer in Texas.

While wildlife managers in Idaho are hesitant to put a figure on just how many wild pigs there were when their presence was confirmed, Pam Juker, communications director for the Idaho State Department of Agriculture, said her agency estimates the population in 2009 to be somewhere between 50 and 100 animals.

That number has been reduced due to a combination of hunting and agency efforts, although an exact number of pigs taken by hunters is impossible to know since Idaho doesn't regulate wild pig hunting--only a valid hunting license is required. Additionally, the remaining pigs are elusive quarry in the expansive landscape.

"It's difficult right now, and it's a little frustrating because we're basically chasing ghosts," said Brian Flatter, senior conservation officer with Idaho Fish and Game whose 2,300-square-mile patrol area is where the wild pigs are active.

Major populations of wild pigs can be found throughout the South and California, but in recent decades, the pigs have managed to expand their range as far north as Michigan and even have a sizable foothold in north central Oregon.

Currently, the wild pigs in Idaho are confined to the Bruneau Valley, but some wildlife managers are concerned that if hunting pressure increases, they may be motivated to move downriver.

"They're very adaptable. They can live in nearly any environment as long as they have food and water," said Scott Stopak, a wildlife disease biologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services division based in Boise.

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Bill London, district conservation officer with Idaho Fish and Game, added that both the Bruneau and Snake rivers could be enticing migration corridors for the water-loving pigs.

Wild pigs aren't a native species anywhere in North America, so the question arises: How did they get here in the first place? The blame goes all the way back to some of the earliest European explorers, including Christopher Columbus, who would routinely release pigs or goats on new land as a way to build up a future food supply for possible colonists or shipwrecked sailors.

Turns out, pigs are very, very adaptable and very, very prolific breeders. Wild pigs can start breeding when they're as young as 6 months old, are capable of having between four and eight offspring per litter and can have multiple litters in a year. Rabbits don't have anything on these guys.

Wild pigs are also big: typically, adult pigs weigh between 75 and 250 pounds and range from 50 to 75 inches in length. On rare occasions, they can be larger. In 1965 a wild pig weighing 893 pounds was killed in South Carolina.

Some of these largest pigs are thought to have been raised in domestic situations and then either escaped or were released. In just three generations, domestic pigs that escape or are allowed to roam free can revert to wild form, including thicker hair, a narrower head and long tusks, according to Stopak.

Wild pigs have gotten an even bigger hand from man in recent years as the popularity of hunting them has increased. In many of the cases in which only pockets of wild pigs have been found, officials believe they are the result of individual hunters secretly releasing a few pigs in the area so they can hunt them closer to home. Not only is the action illegal in most states--including Idaho--but it often creates unanticipated nightmares for wildlife and land managers, as well as private land owners. If someone is caught releasing wild pigs--an exotic species--in Idaho, he or she could face felony charges from both the Department of Agriculture and Idaho Fish and Game, punishable by both jail time and fines if convicted.

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