Many Georgia hunters are seeing something new from their deer stands this season: wild hogs.
A survey by the Wildlife Resources Division and University of Georgia Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study shows the destructive pests are capturing territory faster than previously thought.
Last year, biologists conducted surveys in each of the state's seven wildlife management regions to identify permanent feral hog populations.
The results were stunning: portions of 137 of the state's 159 counties now have feral hogs, with more areas likely to be invaded in the future.
The map produced by SCWDS and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources indicates a 350 percent increase in distribution since a similar survey was conducted 15 years ago, said wildlife biologist Kent Kammermeyer, coordinator of the study.
Although efforts to control feral hogs are in full swing, the likelihood is great that their spread will continue.
"I hate to be negative, but I'm afraid it's going to get worse," he said. "It might double again in 20 years, and it would be very easy for that to happen."
Feral hogs have existed in Georgia since pre-Colonial times, when early settlers released European swine and recaptured them with dogs.
Hernando DeSoto, the Spanish explorer who meandered across the South in the 1500s, is reputed to be one of the first to inadvertently add feral hogs to the native mix of North American wildlife.
Hundreds of years later, wild pigs are among the continent's most bothersome pests, and they are spreading more rapidly today, due in part to the release of feral hogs by hunting clubs.
"These animals impact at least 100 species of native wildlife, easily," Kammermeyer said. "Being exotic and non-native, they have the capacity to not only eat up food supplies for other wildlife, but also destroy them."
Hogs are particularly fond of acorns - a primary mast crop for deer. Large groups of hogs also damage crops, especially corn. Feral hogs also can carry diseases harmful to domestic livestock.
Their expanding range is due in part to migration. A poor acorn crop in North Georgia, for example, can cause nomadic hogs to move into new territory in search of food. But intentional relocation also is a problem.
Kammermeyer said it is legal to move hogs around - provided they have been inoculated against diseases like swine brucellosis and pseudo-rabies, both if which can harm domestic livestock.
"Technically, they are not wildlife, so people can move them," he said. However, experts think few hogs relocated for hunting purposes are vaccinated.
In the Augusta area, feral hogs are commonplace in most swamps bordering the Savannah River - and are beginning to appear in the Piedmont region as well.
Most herds are on private lands but hogs are turning up at U.S. Army Corps of Engineers parcels along Clarks Hill Lake, and at several wildlife management areas in McDuffie and Lincoln counties.
"They first showed up in the Hester's Ferry area along the upper lake," said Tom Lewis, the corps' park operations manager. "Then, within about 18 months, they were in lots of other areas."
Hog populations are known to exist in the lake's Broad River arm and in several areas in upper Lincoln and Elbert counties, he said.
The true Eurasian hog, or "Russian boar," is a pure strain of wild hog. They are fierce fighters and have a longer head and flatter snout. Their young are striped, like chipmunks.
The majority of feral hogs, however, are hybrids with domestic swine, which can grow to 500 pounds or more. Any hog heavier than 500 pounds is considered to be from domestic stock.
The best control method is a three-pronged attack: shoot as many as possible, then use traps to live-catch the others. Survivors then can be captured using trained hog dogs. There is no closed season for hogs.
Although hunting over bait and using electric lights are illegal in Georgia, special permits for such tactics are available for approved hog remediation programs.
The Georgia Department of Natural Resources has a free booklet on controlling feral hogs, available at all DNR offices.
Reach Robert Pavey at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 119 or firstname.lastname@example.org.