Feral hogs destroy wildlife habitat at alarming rates and cause a number of important concerns to hunters, farmers and other landowners in Oklahoma.
Feral hogs can cause extensive damage to farm fields, crops, stored livestock feed, woodlots, suburban landscaping, golf courses and wildlife habitat relied upon by native species such as deer, turkey, squirrels and quail. Their voracious appetites, destructive habits and prolific breeding patterns wreak havoc on the landscape, often resulting in overwhelming competition to native species. They may also carry diseases that can be transmitted to other species, including humans.
"The bottom line is they don't belong here," said Kevin Grant, Oklahoma state director of Wildlife Services for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which oversees feral swine management issues in Oklahoma as part of a memorandum of understanding with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. The memorandum is rooted in the fact that feral swine are not true wildlife, but rather descendants of domestic stock living at large in a feral state.
Grant said millions of dollars and significant resources have been spent in an effort to make sure domestic swine stock is safe from disease, so the presence of feral populations raises concerns for the safety of domestic swine and the swine industry.
"If they're here, they need to be on the plate or in a pen because they're not native to the Americas, and the way that they're really taking off out there is pretty phenomenal," Grant said.
Grant's comments were part of a presentation to the Oklahoma Wildlife Conservation Commission on the statewide status of feral swine, or "wild hogs" as they are often called in Oklahoma. According to Grant and officials with the Wildlife Department, feral hogs are a well-established and still growing problem in Oklahoma.
"They are probably the most prolific large mammal around," Grant said, adding that feral swine can reach sexual maturity by 6 months of age, have relatively short gestational periods and can give birth to large litters multiple times a year.
In the 1990s, the Agriculture Department worked with the Wildlife Department and the Noble Foundation to study the spread of feral hog populations in Oklahoma. Feral hogs seemed to originate in southeastern Oklahoma, and they since have spread to all 77 counties.
Grant said a common question is what can be done about growing and problematic feral hog populations.
"There is no one thing," Grant said. "It's our nature - we want to believe that there's a magic bullet we can employ that will solve this."
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But Grant said solutions are not simple.
"It's going to take a combination of a lot of things to get any kind of control on feral swine," he said. Grant said to truly have an effect, an estimated 70 percent of the feral hog population would need to be harvested annually for several years, an unlikely probability due to lack of access to populations. Additionally, in a given area, some landowners may wish to eradicate populations whereas others may not wish to do so on their property.
Three possible approaches to feral hog population control include trapping, aerial hunting and the use of toxicants, Grant said, though each has significant limitations.
For example, hogs can learn to avoid or even escape traps, a common method used across Oklahoma.
"It's a good method; it's not the end-all," Grant said, adding that trapping may at least help keep up with feral hog reproduction in a local population.
"Aerial hunting is a really good way to get them," he said "But it has its downside, too. One is that you have to be able to see them."
Visibility restricts aerial hunting to those times of the year when there are no leaves on trees and brush. Additionally, hogs can learn to avoid aerial activity and adapt simply by moving onto properties not frequented by low-flying airplanes and helicopters.
Aerial hunting also can be risky and hazardous. The state Legislature has passed two bills that allow aerial hunting from helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft outside the Oct. 1-Jan. 15 period. The governor has signed one bill, and another is awaiting signature.
The Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services also is studying the use of toxicants as a method for control, though it has not been implemented in the United States. In Australia, hog populations are being successfully controlled with the use of sodium nitrite. However, any toxicant used in the United States for wildlife population control must be registered with the EPA after a tremendous amount of testing and evaluations. Effective solutions for avoiding non-target species also must be developed.
"This is going to be some years down the road," Grant said.
Alan Peoples, chief of wildlife for the Wildlife Department, said traditional methods of hunting hogs do not decrease populations of feral swine as much as simply dispersing those populations. Still, feral hog hunting is a popular pursuit in Oklahoma.
Also, the Commission heard a presentation from Jerry Shaw, wildlife regional supervisor for the Wildlife Department, on the Department's online game checking system. The system allows sportsmen to check in their game animal from a computer, smart phone or other device instead of having to drive to a physical check station. It grew in part out of requests from sportsmen for an online game checking option.
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The Department first offered the option for checking in deer during the 2009 season. With no advertising, about 17,000 deer were checked in online by sportsmen. In 2012, more than 60,000 deer were checked in online. All deer and turkey checking requirements in 2013 must be fulfilled online, excluding certain wildlife management areas and controlled hunt locations. Local businesses have the opportunity to voluntarily serve as online check points to assist sportsmen.
The online game checking system offers several benefits to sportsmen and biologists. It is simpler and faster for sportsmen and doesn't require them to travel. It also makes for faster and more accurate processing of data by Wildlife Department biologists. It's less expensive and time-consuming since fuel and printing costs are greatly reduced. It provides better and more immediate access to data for biologists and game wardens, and allows multiple users to access the data at the same time. Physical check books used at check stations in the past made many of these benefits difficult to achieve.
Shaw said hardcopy check books can be difficult to collect from physical check stations dispersed across the state after a season of hunting, may be filled out incorrectly or illegibly, and are susceptible to mistreatment, loss, fire, floods or other catastrophes that could damage them while not in the Department's possession. Online checking eliminates these problems and results in more accurate data for biologists to use for management purposes.
The Commission also heard a presentation on the success of the Department's newest state-designated trout area at Medicine Creek in southwestern Oklahoma.
"It's been a great success according to our fishermen as well as the community," said Ryan Ryswyk, southwest region fisheries biologist for the Wildlife Department.
The Department began implementing the program this past trout season after having to cease trout stocking at Quartz Mountain because of the presence of golden algae in the stream below Altus-Lugert Lake.
"We feel like we've positively impacted the community," Ryswyk said, pointing to increased city tax revenue for Medicine Park in 2013 over the previous two years and the crowds of anglers that have been using the fishery.
According to a creel survey taken during a three-day trout fishing festival at Medicine Park, 63 percent of anglers interviewed were from Comanche County where the fishery is situated, but none of those were actually from Medicine Park.
"These people are coming from outside of Medicine Park," Ryswyk said of the anglers. "It's more than just the local folks that are fishing here."
The survey revealed that 24 percent of interviewees were from southwestern Oklahoma, and 12 percent were from the Oklahoma City metro area.
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"We have a good enough area that people are deciding to drive down, spend the time and money to come down and fish here."
Additionally, 12 percent were under the age of 16, and 23 percent were female anglers.
"Eighty-two percent of the people we talked to rated their fishing experience as 'good' or 'excellent,' " Ryswyk said.
Businesses in the small town report increased sales from the presence of the fishery.
Charles Callich, local business owner and board member for the Medicine Park Economic Development Authority, reported a 35 percent sales increase at his Bullets, Burgers and Barbecue restaurant as a result of the trout season.
"We welcome the outside areas to come fish, and with this program we've heard nothing but good things," he said. "Definitely, the trout fishing does increase business."
Medicine Park is in the foothills of the Wichita Mountains, home to Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge that attracts tourists from across the nation each year. It offers unusual lodging, dining and shopping, hiking and entertainment opportunities and, along with the wildlife refuge, other area attractions such as scenic drives, museums, Lake Lawtonka, Lake Elmer Thomas Recreation Area, and walking trails along Medicine Creek. Along with wintertime trout, the creek also offers fishing for bass, catfish and bluegill. Sidewalks that blend into the granite rock surroundings line the bank of the creek, providing excellent fishing access without taking away from the natural beauty of the area. Many of the city's amenities are within walking distance of Medicine Creek.
Also relating to trout, the Department was presented with a donation of $1,200 from the Blue River Fly Fishers to be used for trout at the Blue River Public Fishing and Hunting Area in southern Oklahoma.
In other business, Wildlife Department human resource administrator Mikki Gutierrez presented certificates of completion to 24 graduates of the Department's 2013 Leadership Development Program. The program consisted of courses designed to equip Wildlife Department employees with skills for leadership roles in the agency.
Richard Hatcher, director of the Wildlife Department, recognized Bruce Burton, wildlife biologist stationed at Deep Fork, Heyburn and Okmulgee wildlife management areas, for 25 years of service and Scott Webb, wildlife technician stationed at Sandy Sanders and Altus-Lugert WMAs, for 25 years of service.
The Commission took no official action on any agenda item because a quorum was not present at the meeting.
The Wildlife Conservation Commission is the eight-member governing board of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. The Wildlife Commission establishes state hunting and fishing regulations, sets policy for the Wildlife Department and indirectly oversees all state fish and wildlife conservation activities. Commission members are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate.
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The next scheduled meeting is set for 9 a.m. June 3 at the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation headquarters (auditorium), at the southwest corner of 18th and North Lincoln, Oklahoma City.