Rod Pinkston’s military career taught him to thoroughly observe and study an enemy before attacking.
“You start by collecting intel,” the retired Army sharpshooter said. “You identify the size of the group, and you pattern them.”
The same approach he used against foreign militants is now a business model for battling a destructive enemy at home: feral hogs.
“Remember that this is not a game animal,” said Pinkston, the founder of Columbus, Ga.-based Jager Pro Hog Control Systems, which uses military technology – and its own behavioral research – to kill about 1,500 hogs each year.
Feral hogs have been in the U.S. since settlers released them in the 1500s. During the past 25 years, their spread has been illegally accelerated by man, mainly because of their appeal as “big game” animals that can be relocated for pursuit by hunters.
Today, the crop-crushing, wetlands-wallowing, tree-girdling creatures cause about $1.5 billion in damage each year, with invasive populations reported in 47 states. One of the their most noted deeds was the destruction of a $16 million F-16 fighter jet that hit hogs on the runway at Florida’s Jacksonville International Airport.
“At this point, Wyoming, Delaware and Rhode Island are the only places left where they are not reported,” said Savannah River Site biologist Jack Mayer, who holds a doctorate in feral hog morphology and has examined more than 10,000 of the creatures.
Once a population is established, control efforts are rarely effective because hogs are prolific breeders, he said. Females can reach maturity within a year and are capable of producing two litters annually with 12 or more piglets.
Because they reproduce so rapidly, about 70 percent of the population in a given range must be removed each year just to stabilize a herd or begin to reduce it.
“So for a herd of 1,000 pigs, you’d need to kill 70 percent each year, so that first year it is 700,” said Mayer, who has studied hogs for three decades. “It would take nine years, under this model, to drive that population into extinction.”
Traditional hunting rarely kills more than 20 percent to 25 percent, he said, noting that SRS has aggressively removed hogs for decades, yet its population continues to thrive.
State and federal wildlife agencies are taking more drastic measures.
New laws that took effect in South Carolina in June will make it easier for residents to remove hogs.
“Now feral hogs can be hunted at night, with or without the use of bait, electronic calls, artificial light or night-vision devices,” said Jay Butfiloski, the state’s furbearer and alligator program coordinator.The rules also allow hog hunting with firearms from the end of February to July 1, a period when many traditional hunting seasons are closed.
In Georgia, “we’ve always been pretty liberal with feral hogs compared to other states,” said state deer biologist Charlie Killmaster of the Wildlife Resources Division. “On private land, there is no closed season, no bag limit and you can hunt them 365 days a year, 24 hours a day.”
Last year, the rules were expanded to permit using bait to hunt hogs in the state’s northern zone.
In a separate law approved in July 2011, stricter penalties were imposed for transporting live feral hogs, which must be tested for disease and can be released only into a fenced enclosure. Killmaster said violations include a $1,500 fine – a relatively stiff penalty for a misdemeanor.
The Augusta area has had feral hogs for decades, but they have recently expanded into new areas, including Army Corps of Engineers land along Thurmond Lake. In July 2011, the corps began issuing trapping permits.
The problem remains an uphill battle in Georgia, but some of the newest research has helped refine and improve control programs.
“Hogs are in the same category as rats, termites or cockroaches – it is important to get all of them,” said Pinkston, who held a recent hog-control demonstration in Screven County that attracted about 90 landowners and farm managers.
The company uses a combination of remote-controlled traps, high-tech video surveillance gear and rifles fitted with night-vision and thermal-imaging scopes.
“We conduct surveillance and study the hogs – just like we study the enemies in Iraq or Afghanistan,” Pinkston said.
One of the first challenges is to identify the population and use cameras to count the number of pigs in a “sounder,” a social colony of sows and younger pigs.
“Feral hogs are among the highest on the intelligence scale,” Pinkston said. “The older sows, in particular, are among the hardest to fool or trap.”
Using video cameras and large corral traps with feeders inside, the Jager Pro contractors figure out how many pigs are in the herd and wait – sometimes for a week or more – until all the hogs enter the enclosure. Then the trap is sprung using remote control.
Hog-control technology is expensive, but it helps avoid crop and property damage.
“It’s not easy, it’s not simple and it’s not cheap,” Pinkston said. “But it can be done.”