Monday, September 15, 2008
Across Michigan, the signs are going up.
"Wanted Dead (Not Alive)," they read. "Last seen in 63 Michigan Counties."
The photo below the bold type shows as ugly a prey as you can find: a wild pig.
"Escaped from game ranches, wild boars threaten Michigan's natural resources and agriculture," the poster says. Signed by a coalition of Michigan wildlife and farming organizations, it amounts to a declaration of all-out war against a critter so wily and destructive it may now be impossible to control.
"We are not exaggerating when we say the wild boar problem in Michigan is now at crisis proportions," Patrick J. Rusz, director of wildlife programs for the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy, said last week. "They are good for absolutely nothing.
"We're telling people: If you see one, shoot it."
The problems started a few years ago when wild pigs, also called feral swine, started to escape from the estimated 60 hunting preserves around the state.
The animals usually free themselves by furrowing under the typical deer-proof fencing that encircles them and then lifting up the fence wire with their powerful snouts.
The preserves and game ranches imported the animals for private hunters, charging from $400 to $500 to shoot a boar. Although Michigan regulates private hunting ranches when it comes to deer, there are no rules about pigs kept in the preserves.
Outside the preserves, the hogs have ranged widely, thriving in Michigan's climate with no real natural predators to control their numbers.
"The typical sow can have a dozen piglets a year," Rusz said. "They reproduce like rabbits. Now they are statewide, across both peninsulas, and they are doing damage everywhere we hear of them.
"Do the math. Crisis is not an overstatement here."
Travel in packs
All but 20 of the state's 83 counties are now believed to have wild hog populations. There are no exact figures on the number of wild pigs in the state. State officials say the pigs generally travel in groups of about 20, but they've had unconfirmed reports of a pack of up to 50 pigs foraging around Midland.
Up in Saginaw County, farmer Dallas Sutliff has little use for the pigs.
"I had to replant my corn twice this year because of them," Sutliff said. "I've never seen anything like it. They're like four-legged vacuum cleaners. The corn was maybe knee high, and they went down row after row, sucking the plants right up.
"They took out 28 acres in a single night."
Sutliff has shot two of them, the biggest, a boar weighing just over 200 pounds.
"These are mean animals," he said. "You get too close to them and they are downright dangerous. They will charge."
Over on the Montcalm and Kent county line, Dan and Anna Bekins pulled into the long dirt road bordering their farmhouse after a recent Saturday picnic.
They had to slam on the brakes suddenly when a fast-moving brown block of fur on short legs ran out of their cornfield inches from the car.
"We didn't know what it was, except it was big and it was ugly and it was gone in a flash," said Anna Bekins. "Then we saw the field.
"It looked like a flying saucer had landed in our cornfield. All the corn was flattened. The darn thing snapped off whole plants and stripped the corn right down to the cob."
Rusz has traveled the state in recent months documenting the problems. He estimates that there are "easily several hundred" wild pigs now on the loose across the state.
"The agricultural damage they do is unlike anything we've seen from any other animal," he said. "We're talking a wild pig population explosion over the next few years in Michigan."
And it isn't just farmers who suffer. "I've seen yards they destroyed in populated areas up in Midland County that look like they were rototilled," Rusz said. "We've had reports of them menacing joggers in southeastern Michigan.
"They are showing up everywhere."
Nationally, feral hogs cause about $800 million in agricultural damages, according to John Mayer, a spokesman for the Washington Savannah River Co., a South Carolina environmental support firm for the U.S. Department of Energy and probably the nation's leading expert on wild pigs.
Mayer was in Michigan over the weekend, presenting informational seminars on the problem in Midland on Saturday and Bath on Sunday.
The seminars, which drew more than 125 people, were sponsored by the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy, the Michigan Farm Bureau, the Michigan Pork Producers Association and the Chippewa Nature Center.
Those organizations also are behind the wanted posters. While promoting the seminars, most experts say the "Wanted Dead" posters are the only solution.
Rusz said the biggest worry has to do with disease.
Some of the wild boars that have escaped and are now on the loose in Michigan have tested positive for pseudorabies, a virus that is extremely contagious and potentially devastating to the state's domestic swine industry.
"They need to be shot," Rusz said. "While the DNR does allow hunting of them in most Michigan counties with a small-game license, farmers and property owners need to be alert to their presence and to take them out whenever they see them."
MIKE WENDLAND is the Free Press' technology columnist. Reach him at 313-222-0532. Look for a video of the wild hogs on his blog at http://freepress.com/wendland.