Feral swine in Missouri are a problem, so why do officials not want anyone hunting them?
Perhaps the hottest topic in conservation these days is the subject of feral hog populations in North America. While invasive feral swine have been in the United States longer than this land has been a country, the wild hog population has compounded exponentially over the last 30 years. Now, states that never previously had a feral hog problem have one of their own.
One of these states is Missouri. The Show Me State didn't use to have a pig problem. However, in the last 20 years or so, the number of hogs in the Midwestern state has surged, mostly in southern Missouri. It seems their range is expanding too.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Forest Service are rightly concerned with feral pigs spreading across the state. However, the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) does not want hunters to take out this invasive species when they see it. Considering the MDC also wants a complete eradication of feral pigs in Missouri, that might not make a lot of sense. Allow us to explain this controversial approach to the management of these destructive animals.
Where in Missouri Are Feral Hogs?
According to the MDC, wild pigs have established themselves in 35 Missouri counties, although the MDC believes their eradication efforts are causing the number to drop. We'll talk more about that later. Most of the animals are concentrated in the southeast corner of the state. That is where the MDC has reported their highest numbers while trapping. Iron County is usually considered ground zero as the area with the heaviest pig problem. Nearby Madison, Wayne, and Reynolds counties also hold large pig populations.
The MDC believes much of the problem stems from high fence operations that were offering European wild boar canned hunting opportunities. Most of this happened in the late 1990s, and unfortunately, many of the animals escaped and quickly found the climate of Missouri to their liking. Sows started having litters of piglets and the problem kept expanding.
Adding to the problem, the MDC believes there are people intentionally releasing swine on both public and private land in hopes of building a huntable population. In a 2016 press release, MDC Wildlife Management Coordinator Alan Leary said it's a problem that's spreading across the state.
"We've also trapped hogs in other parts of the state, which unfortunately means people are still intentionally releasing feral hogs for hunting," Leary said. "It's vital we continue our efforts and get the population under control before it spreads any further."
Why the MDC Doesn't Want Hunters Shooting Hogs
Feral hogs are known to cause all sorts of destruction to native wildlife and human agriculture with their tusks and wallowing activities. A large sounder can wipe out a farmer's whole crop in a single evening in some cases. It's estimated hogs account for $1.5 to $2.5 billion a year in damages. When you add in that they have the potential to spread diseases like brucellosis and leptospirosis to humans, one would think wildlife management would want every single one shot on sight.
However, the MDC is taking a slightly different approach to combating the hog problem, especially compared to states like Texas, where essentially anything goes in the war against this invasive species. More specifically, the MDC and U.S. Forest Service have mostly outlawed the hunting of feral swine on public lands.
The thinking here plays off the social nature of a feral hog. Wildlife biologists in Missouri believe hunting of the animals can do more harm than good. Basically, they reason that if a hunter only shoots a few animals in a sounder, the rest of them scatter, possibly breaking off and founding new sounders. The main argument is that the sows can give birth multiple times a year to multiple piglets that can, in turn, reach maturity in as little as four to five months themselves.
Thus, it doesn't take long for a small sounder to turn into a big one. Because the MDC doesn't want the animal to scatter, they prefer to catch the entire sounder in large pen traps where they can capture the most hogs possible. This idea led to the forming of the Missouri Feral Hog Elimination Partnership.
The Missouri Feral Hog Elimination Partnership
Founded in 2016, "The Partnership," as it is usually known, was put together specifically for the trapping and elimination of feral hogs in Missouri. According to the MDC, there are 13 state and federal agencies participating. The partnership also receives support and funding from farmer and conservation organizations. According to the partnership's 2021 report, they have 48 trappers on the staff in a full-time capacity. Their job is to travel around the state to capture an eliminate problem hogs.
If it sounds like the MDC is wanting to discourage hog hunting, well, that's because they are. They have not been secretive about it either. In that same press release we mentioned earlier, Alan Leary of the MDC was rather blunt about what they thought about hunting for these animals.
"Hunting is not an effective tool for eradicating hogs, and actually compounds the problem by dispersing remaining hogs and fostering a hog-hunting culture," he said.
It's unlikely hunters unanimously agree with this sentiment, but it seems like the MDC is set on dealing with this problem their way. According to their reports, they removed 9,857 wild hogs in 2021, with the total number removed since the problem began sitting at around 54,000. Instead of shooting the animals, they want to see people simply report feral hog sightings to give them leads on where to trap next.
Does it work? Well, that depends on who you ask. The MDC says trapping efforts since 2016 "have resulted in a 48.5% decrease in the number of feral swine-occupied watersheds in the state of Missouri."
Meanwhile you'll find plenty of griping and grumbling from farmers and hunters who complain that it isn't working, and that the problem is worse than ever before. We're not here to take sides, just to present why the MDC says they have made the rules. Make of it what you will.
Can You Hunt Feral Hogs in Missouri?
The answer to this question is yes, although the MDC is strongly regulating when and where it can be done. In 2016, the state closed most public lands to all hog hunting and trapping except for what was being done by the partnership's trapper employees. This includes popular public areas like the Mark Twain National Forest, which is a popular place for both deer and wild turkey.
This does not mean it's illegal to hunt feral hogs in Missouri. Private landowners can harvest feral hogs on their own land, as can their guests. Technically, Missouri does not have a listed season anywhere in their regulations for feral hogs. That's because the state does not consider them game animals because of their invasive nature and because of the domestic origins of Missouri's population.
Hunters did have to push the MDC for a little more leeway in the law. In 2020, they successfully lobbied the MDC to allow the use of night vision, thermal, or infrared as aids in the taking of hogs, just like many other states had already done.
Things got a little bit confusing when the MDC amended their rules again to allow what they call "opportunistic" harvest of feral hogs on public lands, but the window to do this is limited. From the MDC's own book of regulations:
"During deer and turkey seasons, opportunistic take of feral hogs by hunters with an unfilled deer or turkey hunting permit is allowed on lands owned, leased, or managed by the Conservation Department."
However, you are not allowed to harvest a hog outside of those designated deer and turkey seasons. So, if you're in your blind or stand during those seasons and a sounder wanders past, you can harvest a hog, but you cannot be there specifically targeting hogs.
So, in a nutshell, if you want to specifically target hogs in Missouri, you're going to need to find some private land.
Hunting feral hogs in Missouri will likely always be a complicated issue. It's probably still too early to tell if their trapping management plans will have any effect on populations in the long run or not.
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