A "massive explosion" in wild hog sightings in Kentucky and Tennessee has prompted state wildlife agencies to consider an eradication method called aerial gunning, where professionals shoot the pigs from helicopters.
Increasing numbers of the feral swine have been sighted in the southern part of Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area since 2016. LBL has been trapping the hogs since it disallowed hunting in 2015, but the recreation area's management was advised in late November to adopt a more intensive strategy, said Chris Joyner, public information officer for LBL.
"We trapped 70 (hogs) in 2018. We trapped 26 last week, but (state wildlife resource agencies) tell us that's not going to be enough, that we're going to have to get more aggressive with our approaches," Joyner said.
Wild hogs are known to carry at least 30 diseases and 40 parasites that are communicable to humans, pets and wildlife. The swine destroy crops and ecosystems, displace native species and wreak havoc on cultural sites like graveyards, of which there are 270 in Land Between the Lakes, Joyner said.
"One thing people don't understand is the impact (the pigs) can have on the area," Joyner said. "People who hunt wild turkeys, for example, seek out Land Between the Lakes as a destination. … Hogs will eat the turkey eggs; they'll eat the baby turkeys. They have a major potential to impact our economy because of that."
The largest pig populations are currently concentrated in the south, near Dover, Tennessee; however, sightings have been trending northward. Agencies suspect the uptick in hog sightings since 2016 is due to people illegally releasing them into the recreation area in order to hunt them, Joyner said.
Once wild hogs have established a population, it's impossible to fully eradicate them. While trapping is the most effective method of getting rid of the hogs, it's a challenge to trap the swine in large numbers in LBL, as the technology requires cell phone service, said Terri Brunjes, a wildlife biologist who specializes in hogs with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.
"There's not a lot of cell service (at LBL), so we've had to use more primitive means of trapping," she said.
Hunting may seem like the most practical way to get rid of the animals, but Brunjes and Joyner said it's actually counterproductive.
"Intensive hunting efforts only remove 10 to 30 percent of the population annually," Brunjes said.
Pigs are highly prolific; females can begin breeding at 6 months and will typically produce two litters a year. That means at least 70 percent of the population needs to be eliminated annually -- something hunting can't accomplish alone, she said.
Also, firing into a group of wild hogs may kill one or two of them, but it will "educate" the others. The surviving animals will learn to avoid humans and will become nocturnal, making them more difficult to find, Brunjes said.
"They're the smartest animals in the forest," she said.
Instituting a hunt would also reward the people who illegally transported the animals in the first place, Joyner added.
That's why LBL may look to an aerial solution. Brunjes said aerial gunning is a proven, safe method that's been used successfully in central Kentucky.
However, Joyner says many unknowns remain, including the exact numbers of wild hogs in the area.
"A lot of questions have to be answered" before implementing an eradication strategy, Joyner said. "One of the things we're addressing now is trying to determine the size (of the hog population). … We don't know about cost and funding."
Lyon County Judge-Executive Wade White said the area's ongoing battle with another invasive species, the Asian carp, has taught him to favor an aggressive approach. He hopes people will share their opinions with the U.S. Forest Service by emailing email@example.com.
"We're standing at the time of decision, and if we make the wrong decision here, we could be stuck with these (hogs) forever," he said. "The damages that they cause are far greater than (the importance of) somebody's hunt -- and I love to hunt."
Joyner and Brunjes, also self-described hunters, echoed the sentiment.
Land Between the Lakes hasn't yet made a decision about its eradication efforts or decided on a timeline. Closing the recreation area to allow for aerial gunning would be a large undertaking, and could prove disruptive, particularly to out-of-state visitors unfamiliar with local happenings, Joyner said.
"We have 1.7 million visitors here a year. It's essentially the size of a city that visits with us," he said. "(Eradication) will require a very detailed, thought-out plan that takes into account the safety of the public visiting Land Between the Lakes."