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Hogs in the Hills

Turning the pork tide

by John Sewell

One great thing about life in East Tennessee is the easy accessibility of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Whenever the ceaseless sprawl of Knoxville's "urban" geography gets too much to bear, you can just hop in the car and—voila! Within an hour or so you can find solace in the natural beauty of the Appalachians. Nothing beats a few hours of communion with Brother Bear, Sister Deer and Cousin Hog.

Wait a minute: did you say hog? Yes, Virginia: there's hogs in them thar hills—and they's wild!

Unbeknownst to many, there is a thriving, if unwanted, population of European wild boars in the Smokies. The Appalachian variation, known as Sus scrofa, is actually a hybrid animal which is a mix of the European wild boar and the feral pig.

The hogs most resemble the boar, a dark, scruffy, wiry-haired animal with tusks. As a result of hybridization, some of the hogs in the Smokies have swirls of pinkish pigment in their skin. They're not "cute" like Porky Pig—actually much more similar to the Arkansas Razorbacks' mascot or the Hog's Breath Saloon logo—an animal only a mother could love. If you're a mother hog, that is.

Categorized as an exotic animal, the wild hog (which weighs between 125 and 200 lbs. at adulthood) poses a threat to the ecosystems of the Smokies by disrupting the food chain, destroying native plant life and rooting in the soil, which causes erosion. What's more, the animals are virtual breeding machines. In response to the explosion of wild hogs, a small team of wildlife biologists and technicians has been employed by the park to keep the population at bay.

"The hogs are the most prolific mammal in North America," says wildlife biologist Kim DeLozier, the man who spearheads the park's hog control program. "Theoretically, a female pig that reproduces twice a year can be responsible for 7 million offspring in her lifetime... Thank goodness that doesn't happen—'cause if it did we'd have wall to wall pigs like we did prior to the mid '80s.

"This park used to be just full of pigs. We'd catch them in the front yard of park headquarters and people would take pictures of them along the roadsides. We'd see groups of 30 or 40 just roaming around. Now, most people aren't even aware that we have pigs or have any idea of the damage that they can create."

Delozier is not nearly as rough hewn as one might imagine when considering his profession. Dealing with feral animals and traveling in the back country for over two decades has done little to wear off his professional veneer. He is neatly groomed, healthy, professional and all business. In conversation, Delozier seems somewhat academic—and this analytical approach is surely necessary when applying the scientific method to wildlife management challenges.

Ideally, eradication of the species from the park would be the goal. But the small hog-control staff of five, coupled with the fantastic reproductive capability of the animals, means that the best-case scenario is controlling the animals and thereby minimizing damage to the park. Since the mid '80s, DeLozier and company have been in an all-out war with the hog population. And in that time, they've managed to pare down the numbers to a manageable level.

"It's very hard to come up with an estimate of how many animals there are," says DeLozier. "What we've been told by the experts from U.C. Berkeley is that we have to remove at least half of the population every single year. That will keep the population even or decrease it a little bit.

"We have managed to decrease the population enough to where you could say it's at a maintenance level. So we remove approximately half the population every year." Last year, around 400 pigs were removed—which indicates that there will probably be 800 to 1,000 pigs at peak population this year.

The pigs are removed by trapping and relocation and by simply shooting the animals in the backcountry areas of the park. DeLozier says that about half of the animals are killed while the other half are removed to nearby national forests in North Carolina and in Tennessee's Tellico region.

Wary of humans, the pigs generally roam in the high altitude areas of the park that are not easily accessible by visitors. You won't find boars foraging through garbage at picnic areas, but you just might see one if you're hiking on the Appalachian Trail. So DeLozier's small staff has to spend lots of time in the most desolate areas hunting the animals.

Wildlife biological technician Rick Varner has hunted hogs for the park service for over a decade. Varner is a modern-day mountain man, making many solitary missions to the wilderness on foot in search of wild hogs.

"This will be my 13th year on the hog reduction program," says Varner. "I wasn't exactly trained for this. I just have a lifetime of outdoor experience: hunting, trapping, and I did eight years in the Marine Corps. That time in the Marines was actually very helpful.

"I was infantry in the Marines, which is pretty much exactly what I do here," says Varner, laughing. "I had to carry a gun, sleep in a tent and hike a lot of miles—not much difference.

"This type of work isn't for everybody. I mean, when people hear about the job they'll say, 'Oh cool—I'd love to do that.' But, in the early days of the program, the burnout rate was only about two years. Most people, after two years, they'd had enough and moved on.

"In a year, we'll spend about four months living in the backcountry. And a lot of times you'll go a whole week without seeing another human being—you're all alone. So it takes someone who likes being by themself."

On a typical hunting mission, Varner will stay in the backcountry for around a week. He'll stay at an off-trail, secret campsite that is already established. Once a year, helicopters will drop a steel box near the campsite with tents and supplies. When the bivouac is established, Varner carries in his clothes, supplies, food and ammunition in a backpack.

For the most part, the hunting forays are made during summer months because of the more reasonable climate. In the summer, the hogs are nocturnal. So it's standard procedure for Varner to chase hogs through the mountains at crazy hours of the night, usually averaging around 15 miles of hiking in an evening.

Overnight hunting is halted in winter months. Last year, however, Varner did some because the pigs stayed in the higher elevations. Food supply dictates where the hogs reside—and last year, the acorns (the hogs' preferred food) were in the higher areas. The conditions were so bad that there were wind-chill levels at 15 below zero. "It was totally miserable and dangerous, too," says Varner.

A hog-hunting excursion is not a haphazard outing, but rather a carefully planned and orchestrated event. Park staff are encouraged to keep a watchful eye on where the pigs might be, so that Varner and his cronies can have maximum impact on their hunts.

"There's only a few of us doing this and we've got 500,000 acres to cover," says Varner. "So there's just no way we cover all the likely spots. We rely a lot on visitor reports. And every year we have a meeting with all park employees and emphasize to them to report any hog activity as soon as possible. That gives us an idea where the hogs are.

"Then there are places we call the traditional areas, places where we know that on certain times of the year we'll find pigs. There is usually a food source at certain places. So we know where to look. If we're going out on a Monday through Friday trip, we'll go into the backcountry to a traditional area. First, we try to sweep the area during daylight hours and get a feel for where the hogs were the night before. And then, after dark, we come back and work those areas.

"We also try to sweep the areas for safety issues," Varner continues. "I mean, even though there are designated camping areas, that doesn't mean that there won't be someone camped illegally. So we need to be sure there's nobody around. We go back in these areas at night. And then we're pretty much limited to trail use because you can't move quietly enough off trail after dark.

"At night you can't see, so you gotta use your ears. You just listen and, if you've got two or three pigs, they make a pretty good amount of noise. They'll be flipping rocks and breaking sticks. And sometimes they'll encroach on each other's feeding spots and grunt at each other.

"Whenever we hear the pigs, the first thing we do is to check the wind. Those pigs have got incredible noses, and if they get a whiff of people, they're out of there. At night, our weapon of choice is a shotgun," says Varner. "And our range is 30 yards at maximum. Normally, if they're feeding and you're pretty stealthy, you can get within 10 yards. I've shot many, many pigs within that range." In the winter, rifles are used because of increased visibility allowed by the leafless trees.

Though the hog population is somewhat under control, it is still a destructive force in the Smokies. "They (the hogs) really like to eat those spring beauties (a flower that provides ground cover) and they'll even eat the roots and the bulbs," says Varner. "That's one of the things that really stirs up a lot of people's emotions. They'll go up to these beautiful areas and the pigs have already been there. They got there first and just plowed 'em up totally."

Obviously, there is a lot of danger associated with backcountry boar hunting. Varner says that he tries to cover all the variables, but that there is still a high potential for serious injury.

"I kind of cringe when I talk about injuries, because I keep thinking it's gonna happen one of these days and somebody will get hurt really bad," says Varner. "We've had a few sprained ankles and I poked a stick in my eye running though the woods one night. But, to get this job, you have to have extensive outdoor experience. And hunters, by nature, are very independent."

Though there probably isn't as much poaching activity in the park in recent years, it is still an ongoing safety concern. "I've never had any run-ins with poachers," says Varner. "But every year, when we're up there in the backcountry, we hear gunshots. And we'll know it's not someone else from the park service 'cause we know where they are.

"We'll meet hikers on the trail, and they'll say, 'Oh, you're the one I heard shooting last night.' And they'll be talking about areas we weren't in. So there is definitely some evidence of poaching going on. It takes place, but we don't catch very many people doing it."

Some people are critical of the park employees killing the animals and simply leaving the carcasses in the backcountry. But, with the tiny staff and logistical concerns, there is really no other choice. Plus, the boars provide food for hungry animals that may have been deprived of acorns by the hogs.

"Well, if you're a bear and you're having a hard time finding something to eat and you come up on a hog carcass—well, that's a pretty doggone good food source for you," says Kim DeLozier. So the bears and coyotes and bobcats make tremendous use of the hog carcasses when they find them.

"There are only so many acorns to go around for all the wildlife in the park. And when you have pigs in there scarfing up all those acorns, then what that does is takes the food away from the native species. This effects the number of bears, deer, turkeys, squirrels and things like that."

The introduction of wild boars into the park is yet another way that the delicate balance has been upset in the area. And, by keeping the population down, DeLozier, Varner and others tip the scales back in the right direction. "Over the past 10 years, our bear population has been increasing," says DeLozier. "And I think, in part, that increase can be attributed to a decrease in the density of wild pigs. If we stopped all of our efforts, I could see the population level easily going back to the way it was in the early '80s. Right now, I think the population is as low as it's gonna get with as many people as we have on our staff."

August 17, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 33
© 2000 Metro Pulse