By TIM ALEXANDER
PITTSFIELD, Ill. — The USDA’s Wildlife Services currently acknowledges the existence of only a single herd of feral swine in Illinois – a small cluster in Pike County. Previously, feral swine populations were confirmed in Fulton County and the contiguous counties of Fayette, Marion, and Clay; however, it believes those to be eradicated.
Wildlife Services is urging farmers in Pike County to watch for and report suspected feral hogs, which can damage crops, pasture, and natural resources as well as carrying disease and parasites. It is also urging April turkey hunters to report cases of suspected feral swine damage.
Property damage from rooting feral swine has become a real issue in the county, resulting in several court cases and financial settlements, said Blake Roderick, executive director of the Pike-Scott County Farm Bureau.
“This has been going on in Pike County for a few years, and two years ago it really came to a head,” he explained. “Hogs were ranging three to five miles out from where they escaped from a farmer, causing damage to CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) land, people’s corn and bean fields, and other crops and pasture.”
Wildlife Services and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (DNR) became involved, looking into ways to eradicate the herd. As Pike is historically a livestock-producing county (estimated value of $125 million per year), quick action was needed to prevent the rogue swine from spreading possible infections or disease to domesticated hogs and pigs.
Citations were issued for allowing livestock to run wild, once a source of the feral swine outbreak was determined. “There was no effort or attempt by the farmer to confine the animals, and they were out of control. At one point we were looking at a couple hundred head that were running wild,” Roderick said.
“Ultimately, the USDA and courts got involved and set some fines and actually some jail time over the issue. We don’t want to see people going to jail, but we also don’t want to see feral hogs get established in the county.”
The farmer was also instructed to impound the feral hogs, a few of which had originally escaped from a non-enclosed pen before breeding and the wild and expanding the size of the rogue herd. In addition, insurance payments were made to some landowners who incurred losses.
With the help of the USDA, an effort to corral the swine is underway in rural Pike County. Roderick is expecting USDA to issue a progress report in the coming weeks, but until then, declines to speculate on how many hogs have been removed or eradicated so far.
“A couple of hogs were killed on the highway a couple of weeks ago, and another was reported killed on the interstate,” he said. “When a big old hog collides with a vehicle, the result is never good.”
Wildlife Services and the DNR offer assistance to farmers and landowners suspicious of feral hogs on their properties. Officials determine whether a population is present, provide trapping equipment, and remove the feral swine, which cannot be legally hunted except during gun deer season.
Under state law, landowners must apply to DNR for a nuisance wildlife permit in order to harvest feral hogs outside gun deer season.
Whether the USDA acknowledges a feral hog population there, Fulton County continues to be a problem area for feral swine since a small group of exotic pigs escaped the boundaries of a pay-to-hunt operation that closed decades ago. This is according to Lewiston native Christine Belless, who is also a University of Illinois extension program coordinator for agriculture and natural resources in the county.
“Oh my goodness, I could tell you the name of the people that brought in the wild hogs originally, but I won’t,” she said, laughing. “These folks would go to Missouri a couple of times a year and bring in Russian boar, goats, and (other species). But sometimes their fences were not mended like they needed to be.
“(The hunting operation) is gone, but this has been going on for at least the last 40 years.”
At the height of the feral swine invasion in Fulton County, farmers often reported major crop damage from rooting pigs on their properties, sometimes resulting in court cases, financial settlements, and broken friendships, Belless recalled.
“And the pigs are still there. I think they are probably the (progeny) of the boars that mated with our native pigs. They did not just pop up,” she pointed out.
Belless also humorously recalled what would sometimes occur if armed neighbors encountered any wayward pigs on their properties: “There would be a big old hog roast.”
If a small feral swine population still exists in Fulton County, it is due to their prolific reproductive ability. Sows may have two litters of 5-10 piglets per year, and gilts may begin breeding at 6 months of age.