By Howard Meyerson
GRAND RAPIDS, MI – Federal wildlife officials are ramping up efforts to locate, test, and kill feral swine in Michigan. Hunters and private landowners also are being encouraged to participate in the $20 million, U.S. Department of Agriculture program that was launched nationwide in April and in Michigan in late July.
“The feral swine issue caught the attention of Congress and they have given us quite a bit of money,” said Pete Butchko, state director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services program in Michigan, part of the agency’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. “Some states, like Texas and Florida, have a huge problem that is really irreversible. They have no hope of eradicating the pigs. Michigan seems to have a small, entrenched population, but people are concerned that it won’t stay small.”
Feral swine are wild pigs that roam the landscape. They cause damage to the environment, prey on animals, and are known to carry diseases and parasites that can affect commercial livestock. USDA officials report the pigs now roam freely in 39 states.
Michigan’s eradication effort will focus on Russian boars, a non-native species that was introduced. Butchko’s office was appropriated $300,000 for fiscal year 2014, which ends in October. The same is expected in 2015, he said.
Wildlife Services staffers plan to identify feral swine populations using reports from landowners and hunters to pinpoint locations. Most of the pigs will be trapped and tested for disease, then killed. Some will be fitted with GPS collars and studied. Butchko said participating landowners will be provided with bait, traps, and trail cameras.
“This will be sort of a demonstration program,” Butchko said. “For most of this we will need the cooperation of landowners. Most pigs are on private land. We don’t have enough staff to be out there every day, baiting and looking.”
The program, he said, will start by targeting wild pigs in Mecosta County where some work has been done and can now be intensified. Feral swine populations also have been identified in Midland County and the Gratiot/Saginaw county region, and in Hillsdale and Washtenaw counties.
“This is a wonderful thing and we are happy to see there is federal funding to address the problem,” said Nancy Frank, assistant state veterinarian with the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. “We don’t know how many are out there, but we know some have tested positive for pseudorabies. We don’t want that disease coming back into (commercial) swine herds.
“Another big concern is swine brucellosis. We haven’t found any testing positive for that in Michigan, but other states definitely have a problem. Our commercial swine are free of it, but we don’t want it popping up,” Frank said.
ULTIMATE GOAL: ERADICATION
Wildlife researchers plan to trap and fit 18 of the wild boars with GPS collars to learn more about their habits, travel routes, and the damage they cause. A five-year cooperative study, conducted by Michigan State University and funded by the Michigan DNR, also recently was launched. The project is expected to cost from $400,000 to $500,000 over its duration. Funding will come from a portion of those funds Congress allocated for the feral swine initiative, along with federal Pittman-Robertson revenue that is returned to the state each year.
“The ultimate goal is to eradicate them,” said Gary Roloff, the study’s principal investigator and associate professor in MSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. “We know very little about how they behave in northern environments. There is a lot of research in Texas and Florida, but that’s a different environment and a different breed of pig.”
The GPS data will allow researchers to map where the pigs root and enable them to investigate and assess environmental or agricultural damage and costs. Trail cameras at bait piles will show whether they travel in groups. Real-time GPS data also will help researchers find pig herds in winter months while conducting aerial observations.
“Wildlife Services has been trapping pigs for a couple of years, but they kept persisting on the landscape no matter how many they caught,” Roloff said. “We’re going to trap and collar them and find out if they are using riparian corridors or private or public lands. Those are questions that policy makers (ask).”
ONLY ONE COLLARED SO FAR
As of press time, only one boar had been captured and collared; a 150-pound female was captured on public forest land in Midland County. Roloff said it was caught by a neck snare. Trapping them has been tougher than anticipated.
“They are a challenge to collar,” said Dwayne Etter, wildlife research specialist with the DNR and co-author of the research proposal being funded. “They are difficult to pattern. It may be (because we’re) trying to trap them in summer when there is a lot of food out there. The winter months may prove more effective.
“This is a major issue nationally, not just in Michigan,” Etter said. “They become established in areas, reproduce rapidly, and survive well. Hunting doesn’t impact the population, and the damage they can do to ecosystems is tremendous.”
APHIS allocated $9.5 million of the $20 million to state feral swine projects in 2014. Agency officials report that pig populations have spread from 17 to 39 states in the past 30 years. The balance of the funds will go to develop disease-monitoring procedures, research and analysis of control practices, and centralization of control operations.
Hunters and landowners interested in participating in the program may contact Pete Butchko at (517) 336-1928 or report pig sightings at: michigan.gov/dnr
© 2014 Howard Meyerson
This story appears on Michigan Outdoor News