MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WBTW) – Here’s what South Carolina farmers are getting used to – plant the seeds. Wait until wild hogs dig it up, seed by seed, row by row. Fix the ground and replant. Hogs return. Repeat.
And repeat. And repeat.
“If you go to some of these areas where hogs have been rooting around in fields, it looks like bombs have gone off,” said Gary Spires, the director of government relations for the South Carolina Farm Bureau Federation.
It’s not just farms that are seeing the impact of feral hogs’ exponential growth across the state. The wild pigs are destroying riverbanks, entering residential areas and starting to dig up golf courses. It’s a problem that’s costing the state an estimated $115 million a year – and since it’s nearly impossible to halt the animals’ growth, it’s only going to get worse.
It’s estimated that there are at least 150,000 wild hogs in South Carolina, although experts say numbers are hard to track.
The invasive species was introduced to the South in the Colonial Period, potentially dating back to 1500.
Although troublesome, the hogs didn’t become a widespread problem in South Carolina until the last two decades. Within a few years, the pigs expanded from being found in half of the state to being present in every county.
The feral hog population nearly doubled between 2003 and 2011 alone, according to data published by the South Carolina Wild Hog Task Force. Between half to three-quarters of the hogs would have to be killed every year to even attempt to keep the population at its current levels.
Statewide control is “prohibitively expensive,” according to the task force. Trapping isn’t successful in controlling or reducing the number of pigs. Hunting, which the state relies on to help with the issue, only removes 20% to 30% of the hogs.
The number of pigs killed by hunters each year varies. There were 28,043 feral hogs killed by hunters in the state in 2020, according to data from the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control. The most were killed in Abbeville County, at 1,686 pigs – or 4.84 pigs per square mile.
Hog harvest numbers can vary greatly from year to year.
The hogs stayed in wet and low areas around river systems before their rapid expansion. Greg Yarrow, a professor in the Clemson University Forestry and Environmental Conservation Department, saw hogs showing up in places they previously hadn’t been while he was studying the animals in Texas during the 1980s.
“We’ve had farmers who have begun to report crop damage, and then people start to see them more on the landscape, so within that time frame, we’ve seen a lot more reports and issues with hogs,” Yarrow said.
The exponential growth in range has been attributed to hunters transporting the feral pigs from Texas to new areas.
Once they’re in an area, the hogs can decimate farmland, endanger sensitive wetlands and spread diseases. The hogs are “opportunistic omnivores” that will eat anything, including plants, insects, birds and other mammals.
Yarrow, who has spent more than three decades at Clemson University, has seen the hog population cause more issues within the last 15 years.
“If there were no hunting of hogs and no trapping of hogs, we would see a real expansion of damage to the point where it would, I think, start to really impact the livelihood of farmers and even landowners to grow trees,” Yarrow said.
Hitting farms hard
One estimate from the South Carolina Farm Bureau Federation places the damage feral hogs cause in South Carolina at $115 million.
The hogs especially like corn and cotton and will go down a row and dig up the seeds, according to Spires. With farmers already facing thin margins, having 10% of their land damaged can be devastating.
“That is huge, and not many businesses can absorb 10% of their inventory just being gone,” he said.
The wild hogs can also spread diseases to farm animals.
It’s doubling or tripling the costs on farmers in some areas, he said. While issues aren’t new, he has seen it getting worse on farms within the last five to 10 years.
The impacts the pigs cause is worse than other animals, and the hogs are smart enough to avoid traps and other protective measures.
“Wild hogs are more destructive to deer,” said Faith Truesdale, the Pee Dee district director for the South Carolina Farm Bureau Federation.
She said residential areas are also starting to see the pigs invade.
The federation has seen some successes in recent years in efforts to crack down on the spread. Legislation passed last year closed loopholes in laws that criminalize the transportation of feral hogs. The group is also working with the state and federal governments to get funding to trap and kill the hogs in some of the worst areas.
Despite that work, people across the state are still going to feel impacts, as higher costs to farmers translate to more expensive goods.
“It will be felt by the consumer,” Spires said. “It just will.”
Impossible to eradicate
Complicating the issue is the fact that a female hog can become sexually mature at six months old and give birth 12 to 14 piglets a year, according to Jay Cantrell, a wildlife biologist and assistant big game program coordinator with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources,
He said the hogs are an economic and ecological threat as they compete with native species – and win.
“There is not a whole lot endearing about them,” he said. “You can list this long list of problems they cause and what they cost, and there is really nothing you can say about them.”
Pair that with a resistance to the parasites and diseases they carry, along with having few natural predators, and it’s even worse.
Cantrell remembers hearing from hunters in Hampton County who wanted to bring them home to hunt there. He warned him against it.
“You can’t just have a few, you can’t just have a handful there,” Cantrell said. “You either have one, or you’re completely overwhelmed.”
Then, the same hunters returned and admitted that he was right.
Cantrell said flooding temporarily helps contain populations, as can hunting. The SCDNR has tried to make hunting the pigs easier by allowing bait, dogs and nighttime hunting on private property. There is no season or bag limit.
The biggest effort the agency is pursuing is trapping. The pigs are smart, which can make them hard to catch. Cantrell said the SCDNR has moved from small, boxlike traps to the corral Pig Brig Trap System.
Trapping is the most cost-effective, time-efficient way to take care of the wild hogs, according to Cantrell. There’s also ongoing research on better traps. Other work looks to poisons and contraceptives, although those are tricky because it’s nearly impossible to prevent other animals from getting into them.
There are existing programs where landowners can rent or get traps. Cantrell said neighbors can also pool money to buy traps to share.
Neighbors need to work together, he said, because the hogs can be cleared from one property, repopulate on the next, and then return.
Another tool is the South Carolina Wild Hog Task Force, a combination of 20 agencies that try to bring attention to and stop the hogs. That includes partnering with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
That coordinated effort is crucial, according to Yarrow.
“Large scale, the cats are out of the bag,” he said. “We will never, ever, in my opinion, be able to eliminate hogs across the landscape, but we can control them to a threshold where they have less impact.”
Use the database below to search for hog harvest data in 2021.