Herds of feral pigs going hog wild in Kentucky

"They're just rooting my farm up," Randy Kelley of Henry County said of the wild pigs that have been roaming on his farm for about five years. "They just go through your fields and tear it all to pieces."
"They're just rooting my farm up," Randy Kelley of Henry County said of the wild pigs that have been roaming on his farm for about five years. "They just go through your fields and tear it all to pieces."

Randy Kelley has engaged in a frustrating and discouraging battle the past four or five years on his Henry County farm.

His 200-pound foe: a wild pig. Actually, that should be plural because these pigs tend to run in herds.

"They're just rooting my farm up," Kelley said. "They just go through your fields and tear it all to pieces. ... You never get it back like it was."

Kelley's 155-acre property in the Bethlehem community is just one example of what the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources calls a disturbing trend. An invasion of wild hogs in counties throughout the state is leaving muddy bogs of overturned ground and ruined crops in its wake.

Feral swine have been in isolated areas of the state for decades, but in 2008, officials started an increase in reports of wild hogs in areas where they had not been seen before, said Steven Dobey, wildlife program coordinator for the Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.

The pigs have a documented presence in 37 counties, he said. That's up from 23 counties in 2009.

While they are most concentrated in parts of Western Kentucky, the hogs have been found in other parts of the state, including Scott County, although Dobey said the population seemed to be declining there.

While the wild pigs are the same species as domesticated hogs, there are plenty of differences, Dobey said.

"These are not the big fat pink things where bacon comes from," he said. "They're like a plague in every state they occur."

He said feral pigs are hardy — they can survive in almost any environment and they'll eat almost anything.

"They're just like vacuum cleaners in the forest," Dobey said of the ecological damage the hogs inflict. "It looks like someone has gone through the forest with a tractor."

In addition to tearing up crops and natural terrain, the pigs carry a number of diseases, some of which are transferable to humans.

Dobey said swine brucellosis, which has been documented in wild pigs in Kentucky, can cause flulike symptoms in humans. While there haven't been any documented cases in people here, he said, hunters butchering wild swine should be very careful in doing so.

"They are just all around a vehicle for transporting wildlife diseases," Dobey said.

And they reproduce rapidly — one sow can have two litters of as many as 10 piglets a year, and females can begin breeding at six months.

Because of the growing concern about the hogs, the state started its Wild Pig Program two years ago to try to control the hogs' spread.

One person is employed full-time in Western Kentucky to work with landowners to trap wild hogs in corral-style traps baited with corn. Once trapped, the hogs are shot, and blood and tissue samples are taken to test for diseases.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture also has brought in helicopters equipped with guns to shoot as many of the hogs as possible.

The Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources has removed about 317 wild pigs since December 2010. Of those, about 80 were trapped and 237 were killed in two aerial gunning operations conducted in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Dobey said.

In the areas where those gunning operations were held, complaints and damage estimates have dropped significantly, he said.

Individuals may shoot wild pigs year round-during daylight hours. Hunting them is not permitted after dark, primarily because of concerns about gun-related accidents, Dobey said.

Getting hunters excited about bagging a wild hog is definitely not the state's preferred control method, Dobey said.

He said regular human presence causes the pigs to move. As soon as they detect hunters, they become nocturnal.

"They're extremely intelligent," he said.

Dobey said he is wary of promoting hunting the boars as a recreational pursuit because "that just leads to people dumping out more."

He said hunters looking for a thrill are responsible, in part, for the pigs being in Kentucky in the first place. Dobey said folks who decided to hunt wild pigs introduced them to Kentucky by traveling to Southern states such as Georgia, Mississippi, Texas and Florida, where the hogs are common, capturing them and hauling them back here, where they released them into the wild. In some cases, Dobey said, people then have marketed pig-infested property as an exotic hunting opportunity.

State law prohibits anyone from keeping, importing or releasing wild hogs, and at least twice last year, the state has prosecuted people for doing so.

Bryan Currey, 46, of Elkton pleaded guilty early last year in Marshall District Court after he was arrested for importing about a dozen pigs from Tennessee to sell them to hunters. He was fined $300 and ordered to pay court costs and $250 in restitution to the fish and wildlife department.

In June, a Florida man, Teddy Wilburn King, 55, pleaded guilty in McCreary District Court to illegally importing and possessing pigs.

Dobey said he did not have an estimate of how many wild hogs are in Kentucky; in 2005, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said some experts estimated the total U.S. population of wild swine at more than 4 million.

Kelley said he thinks there are about 15 or 20 pigs on his farm now. He said his son-in-law set up a camera, and they've gotten footage of two boars, three or four sows, and pigs of various sizes.

Most of them, he said, looked like regular farm pigs, but some had tusks.

Kelley said he put out a state-issued trap last year, and he checks it almost daily. Since then, he said, he's trapped and killed five or six hogs, and his son-in-law has shot two.

Kelley is fed up with the damage they're doing. He's tired of reseeding the places they've mucked up, and he's sick of having his pond muddied.

Kelley put rock down on a gravel road that runs through his property; the hogs rooted it up. He spread 15 or 20 tons of lime; they liked rooting around in that, too.

Kelley said he used to enjoy watching deer and wild turkey roam his fields, but those animals left when the hogs moved in.

Now, he said, "every time I go back there, my blood pressure rises a couple points."