By JULIE MIANECKI
Capital News Service
LANSING – Michigan’s got a big pig problem, and nobody wants to take the blame.
The presence of feral pigs, which can cause environmental damage, carry disease and endanger people and other animals, has been widely reported in the media, but the source and number of wayward porkers are under intense debate.
About 3,000 to 5,000 feral pigs, most weighing 200 to 300 pounds, are running loose in the state, said Russ Mason, wildlife chief at the Department of Natural Resources and Environment (DNRE).
“Think of them as Asian carp with four legs,” Mason said. “They have no redeeming factor whatsoever.”
Commercial pork producers blame the situation on private hunting preserves that offer pigs as game and where they sometimes escape.
“I would say 99 percent have emanated from those hunting preserves,” said Sam Hines, executive vice president of the Michigan Pork Producers Association in Holt.
But hunting preserve operators counter that their pigs rarely, if ever, escape.
Salvatore Palombo, owner of County Line Game Ranch in Beaverton and president of the Michigan Animal Farmers Association, said he’s never had a pig escape and questioned the magnitude of the problem.
“By the DNRE’s own records, they’ve had approximately 250 escapes in the last eight years,” Palombo said. “Of those, all but roughly 50 have been accounted for. It is doubtful that those animals can survive in the wild.”
Mason said DNRE’s estimate comes from combining the number of reported sightings with the relative frequency that wild pigs are seen in other states.
“There’s hand-waving on one side and data on the other,” Mason said. “Just in the last three weeks, I’ve had at least four photographs and a video sent to me.”
Gratiot County has had the most sightings in the state since 2001, followed closely by Washtenaw, Midland, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Marquette counties, according to the DNRE.
In an effort to reduce the population of feral pigs, a new state law allows anybody with a hunting license or concealed pistol permit to kill a wild pig.
Mason said the pigs destroy forest regeneration efforts, severely damage wetlands, prey on native wildlife, create unnecessary competition for food and cause soil erosion and water quality problems. He compared a site that had been foraged by wild pigs to one cleared with a tractor.
“Pick a concern, any concern,” Mason said. “They also have a negative impact on endangered species. They’re a source of diseases that we’re trying to eradicate in wildlife like tuberculosis and diseases that are agriculturally important like pseudorabies.”
The pork producer’s Hines said pseudorabies is a major worry for farmers because many pigs are bred in-state then shipped to other states, mainly Ohio and Indiana, to be raised to market weight before they are sold.
Despite its name, pseudorabies is not related to rabies. It is a form of the herpes virus that weakens the immune system of pigs, making them vulnerable to other illnesses, in addition to causing abortion and stillbirths. An airborne disease, it can also be transmitted through contact with feral pigs or contaminated food.
“If we were to have an outbreak of the disease here, the states that are currently receiving these animals would no longer allow that to happen,” Hines said. “I’m talking about literally hundreds of thousands of pigs on an annual basis. Probably somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 weekly are being shipped to other states.”
Hines added that 25 percent of pork products are exported to foreign countries, so a disease outbreak halting that trade would have a devastating economic effect.
Hogs and pigs are a $357 million-a-year industry in Michigan, which ranks 12th in the nation in market value, according to the Michigan State University data.
The five major pork-producing counties are Allegan, Cass, Ottawa, Branch and Calhoun.
Amy Trotter, resource policy manager at Michigan United Conservation Clubs (MUCC), said lack of regulation for pig-hunting preserves has added to these problems.
“Right now these facilities are not regulated, or if they are, they’re regulated under the captive cervid (deer and elk) regulation,” Trotter said. “That requires high fences but doesn’t talk about anything like a pig, which burrows.”
DNRE is currently investigating the escape of at least 10 elk and two deer from a 70-acre ranch southwest of Munising in September.
Ron McKendrick, owner of Renegade Ranch Hunting Preserve in Cheboygan, said most hunting reserves have sufficient fencing and containment facilities because pigs are too expensive to lose.
“The cost of a Russian boar is about three times the cost of a domestic pig,” McKendrick said. “You’re looking at about $1.75 a pound, and the average one is 200 to 220 pounds, so it’s over $300, my cost, for the hog.
“So I’m not going to let any get out,” he said.
McKendrick said his 300-acre facility has plenty of food and space, in addition to a holding area with two fences and an electric wire, and he’s never had a pig escape through the fences.
However, McKendrick said he was forced to shoot and kill two pigs that got loose while they were being unloaded upon arriving at the preserve about eight years ago.
While McKendrick brings in pigs only when hunters specifically request them, County Line’s Palombo said his preserve usually has 40 to 120 pigs on the premises, depending on hunter demand. Those pigs are born and raised within its 320 acres.
Palombo’s preserve is surrounded by two perimeter fences separated by a road.
MUCC’s Trotter estimated that about 40 hunting preserves offer wild pigs in Michigan.
“Because they’re not required to register, the only ones we really know about are the ones that also have deer or elk,” Trotter said. “There could be even double that, that nobody is aware of yet.”
The DNRE’s Mason said some wild pigs might come from illegal release, when people bring them across state lines and release them to be hunted in the wild, but data show a strong correlation between wild pigs and hunting preserves.
“Look across the state and pinpoint where pigs have been either shot, hit by cars or reported to us,” he said. “Overlay that map on the locations for these pig hunting operations – there’s a very strong and significant relationship.”
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.