Feds take bite out of LBL hogs, but long haul looms

The high reproductive rate of feral hogs makes the invasive critters an expanding problem.

Contributed photo

BY Steve Vantreese

The war to eradicate or at best reduce the population of destructive feral hogs in the Land Between the Lakes promises to be a long, difficult one.

The LBL's U.S. Forest Service working with the federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, APHIS, recently conducted aerial eradication operations -- shooting invasive hogs from a helicopter -- over parts of three days. Despite limitations because of weather, wildlife control specialists eliminated 197 feral hogs during the relatively short flight time.

LBL managers have no way to estimate the invasive porker population in the entire recreation area, but the fact that the aerial operation was able to rub out 197 hogs in just three sessions is scary. There is obviously more than a handful present.

Managers don't know if they will be able to coordinate other aerial operations this winter, but further helicopter shooting as well as more labor-intensive trapping operations will be used. There is no end in sight.

LBL/USFS spokesman Chris Joyner said hogs have been sighted over the entire length of the public area. However, the population is by far most dense where the recent aerial shooting was coordinated: well south of the Kentucky-Tennessee border in the area west of the LBL-bisecting highway, The Trace.

Joyner said, while helicopter-based shooting is the most efficient means of removal, it also requires tight controls for safety. It must be done in the foliage-free winter months when public use of the LBL in minimal. Areas targeted by aerial operations must be closed to visitor traffic and monitored closely to keep people far removed for safety purposes.

Perhaps surprising to many, sport hunting of feral hogs is prohibited in the LBL. Joyner said sport hunting proves ineffective at significantly reducing hog numbers, but even worse, hunting serves to make hogs more wary and causes them to disperse from concentrations to over wider areas.

Aerial shooting followed by trapping are the two most effective removal methods. Studies have shown that, where sport hunting is legal, hog populations sometimes have increased. That has occurred both because of the hogs' high reproduction rates as well as some additional illegal releases of live hogs, motivated by the creation of hog hunting.

Managers say feral hogs can produce two litters a year, each litter yielding five to 10 piglets. The population can grow exponentially because young pigs themselves can be reproducing in less than a year.

The LBL's feral hogs are thought to stem from illegal releases by people who sought to seed the swine as huntable animals. Yet, they created self-perpetuating source of damage to the public area's resources.

"The hogs are extremely destructive to the habitat, and they have a damaging impact on other (native) wildlife species," Joyner said. The non-native swine also pose risks to LBL cultural sites in addition to threatening visitor safety, he added.

Joyner said DNA analysis is being conducted on hogs taken from the LBL in hopes of determining bloodlines and eventually pointing toward the source of the animals. If anyone inevitably could be charged and convicted with releasing hogs, compensatory penalties legitimately could be "in the millions" of dollars, he said.

• It's a transition that will go hardly noticed, but today is the last day of Kentucky's regular goose hunting seasons, and the conservation order season for hunting snow geese begins Sunday.

Goose hunting is barely a stand-alone pursuit in Kentucky nowadays. Most of the goose hunting that has occurred in recent years has come as a bonus to the regular duck hunting season, and that ended across Kentucky at the close of January.

Canada goose hunting at one time was a headline event in area Mississippi Flyway habitats, when thousands of migratory interior Canada geese would wing in as seasonal visitors from the great white North. That ended as milder winters and habitat changes to our north made it less and less necessary for migratory Canada geese to come this far south.

The number of migrant Canadas visiting area habitats essentially dropped to nothing. Modest numbers of Canada geese are scattered across the region nowadays, but they are non-migratory birds that nest and live in local habitats year-round.

Local-nesting geese still provide some hunting, but these birds are more likely to be encountered by the occasional handful instead of thousands of incoming migrants. For this reason, relatively few hunters purse them beyond the duck season, during which geese become an add-on opportunity.

The regular goose season ending today includes Canadas, white-fronted geese and "light geese" - snow geese and color-varied blue geese. The season for taking all those species ends with the close of shooting hours today, but at the onset of shooting hours Sunday, a season that draws even less participation is just beginning.

The conservation order season for taking snow geese runs Feb. 16-March 31. On the plus side for potential hunters, this ultra-generous season features no daily harvest limit on these light geese.

On the negative side, much of time during the season there are few snow geese to be found in area habitat. Some of the time, a few thousand may be present, but typically flock into a single area. Nearby, Ballard County Wildlife Management Area is a focal point for snows lingering in west Kentucky.

The snow goose population has dramatically increased such that it is damaging the species' far northern nesting grounds. Canadian and U.S. federal waterfowl managers intend for the conservation order season to help reduce numbers of the light geese for the species' own long-term survival prospects.

Steve Vantreese is a freelance outdoors writer. Email outdoors new items to outdoors@paducahsun.com or phone 270-575-8650.

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