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Hog wild: KY one of the top states with a costly feral pig problem, but don’t shoot them

They’re 5 feet long, can weigh up to 500 pounds, run at 30 miles per hour and according to one biologist who studies them, they’re “one of the most destructive invasive species on the planet.”

Feral swine, scientific name Sus scrofa, are the same species of pig you would find on a farm, but this isn’t Wilbur from “Charlotte’s Web.”

As omnivores, they eat pretty much everything. They wreak havoc on farmer’s fields and prey on vulnerable livestock, causing billions of dollars in agricultural damage each year. They’re also a nuisance to native species, displacing them with aggression and competition as they spread disease and parasites.

Since they were introduced to the U.S. by humans, either as pig pen escapees or as sport for hunters, wild hogs have been reported in at least 35 states, including Kentucky. The Bluegrass State is reportedly among the top 15 states where wild pigs are a big problem, according to one recent analysis.

Here’s what to know about wild hogs, including how they disrupt native ecosystems and what to do if you spot them in Kentucky.

The states with the biggest wild pig problems

According to Captain Experiences, a platform that offers booking services for hunting and fishing trips, Kentucky is among the top 15 states most affected by invasive wild pigs.

Using data from the University of Georgia’s Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health, the analysis determined which states have the biggest wild pig problems. It ranked the states based on the percentage of counties where wild hogs have been sighted, along with other factors, such as the number of feral swine reports.

Captain Experiences rated Kentucky at No. 14, with wild pigs reported in two-thirds of the state’s 120 counties. According to the analysis, Kentucky has 310 reports with feral pigs present in 81 counties in the state.

A distribution map of feral swine in the United States showing 2022 populations. The invasive and highly destructive species has been reported in at least 35 states, and it’s population is rapidly growing.
A distribution map of feral swine in the United States showing 2022 populations. The invasive and highly destructive species has been reported in at least 35 states, and it’s population is rapidly growing.

Apart from California and Hawaii, which have significant wild pig populations, the animals are most common in the South. Here’s a look at the states with the biggest wild pig problems, according to Captain Experiences:

  1. Texas

  2. Georgia

  3. Florida

  4. Mississippi

  5. Oklahoma

  6. Arkansas

  7. North Carolina

  8. Louisiana

  9. Alabama

  10. California

  11. Tennessee

  12. South Carolina

  13. Missouri

  14. Kentucky

  15. Ohio

What is the problem with wild pigs in Kentucky?

Terri Brunjes is a biologist studying wild pigs for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.

According to Brunjes, the commonwealth does have a few small, scattered wild pig populations. Many states south of Kentucky have much bigger problems, the biologist told the Herald-Leader in an email response.

“The Department [of Fish and Wildlife] is actively working to eliminate wild pigs from the state and we are making progress,” Brunjes wrote. “Wild pigs are one of the most destructive invasive species on the planet.”

That damage to natural resources can be quite widespread, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports.

“They consume large amounts of vegetation; destroy plants with their rooting, soil compaction, and wallowing behaviors; and in some areas, may eat or uproot protected, sensitive, unique, or rare plants. Often, the damaged land then becomes vulnerable to erosion and non-native, invasive plants,” according to the USDA.

Feral swine also hurt crop yields by rummaging through farmers’ fields. They usually target sugar cane, corn, grain sorghum, wheat, oats, peanuts and rice, among other crops. Vegetable and fruit crops, including lettuce, spinach, melons and pumpkins are also targets for roving wild hogs. If given the opportunity, they will also prey upon lambs, full-grown sheep, baby goats and calves.

It’s estimated by the USDA wild swine are responsible for $2.5 billion in agricultural damages nationwide each year.

Altogether, according to Brunjes, Kentucky’s wild pig population is estimated to be between 1,000 and 10,000 by the National Feral Swine Damage Management Program

“I believe (Kentucky’s) pigs are on the lower level of this number, closer to 1,000-2,000,” Brunjes wrote to the Herald-Leader. “A population of ~600 wild pigs was removed from Henry County in 2019 after several years of work. Several additional populations have been eradicated over the years including a population in Scott County, a population in Hopkins and Muhlenberg counties and a population in Hickman, Graves and Carlisle counties.”

Wild hog populations can now be found in the eastern and southwestern parts of Kentucky, according to Brunjes.

What should you do if you encounter wild pigs in Kentucky?

The thing you definitely should not do is shoot at them. That’s according to Brunjes, who says hunting fails as a tool for wild pig population control because it scatters the group and makes members harder to track down.

The animals also reproduce too quickly for that strategy to work. Wild pigs have a rapid gestation period of only 114 days, and females are able to reproduce at just 6 to 8 months old. When they give birth, they average four to six piglets per litter.

Not to mention, they’re crafty. Pigs are smarter than dogs and could even be smarter than 3-year-old children, experts say.

“Wild pigs are the smartest animals in the woods,” Brunjes told the Herald-Leader. “Shooting into a group of pigs may remove one or two, but it educates the rest. Wild pigs that experience hunting pressure become nocturnal, leave the area and avoid traps and all human activity.”

Instead, Brunjes wrote, Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Resources prefers trapping as an eradication strategy, and it’s developed an effective method for removing entire sounders. These sounders are pig families made up of females and their young. Sexually mature males will either go their own way or rove in “bachelor” groups.

“The department uses remote operated corral traps and cell cameras with live feed. These remote operated traps allow us to determine how many pigs are in the sounder. Pigs walk into the trap, which is baited with corn. We then close the door to the trap remotely, when the whole sounder has entered. We don’t have to be onsite to close the door. This technology has allowed us to be very successful in our trapping efforts,”

The state agency advises the public to report wild pig populations and it offers free trapping services. To report wild pig sightings, call the agency at 1-800-858-1549 or visit its website for more information.

Created by humans, the problem of Kentucky’s feral hogs is one that must also be solved through intervention. The animals arrived in the backs of pickup trucks and trailers illegally hauled in by hunters who released them for sport, according to Kentucky Fish and Wildlife. That means ultimately, it’s up to humans to fix the problem and undo the ecological damage and disruption wild pigs unleash.

Do you have a question about the environment in Kentucky for our service journalism team? We want to hear from you. Fill out the Know Your Kentucky form below or email us at ask@herald-leader.com. And if you have a picture of a feral hog on your Kentucky property, send it along!