Critics: Law could aid feral hogs

They’re snarling, nasty creatures, prone to raiding farms and decimating food supplies. When hunters pursue them, they resist like guerrilla fighters, moving at night and taking cover in the woods.

Feral hogs, which have multiplied rapidly and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage in as many as 39 states, are particularly active in Bedford and nearby counties. And, according to critics, a state law set to take effect next month grants them safe haven at private hunting grounds across the state.

Act No. 25 of 2013 – also known as Senate Bill 644, until it received Gov. Tom Corbett’s signature June 24 – pre-emptively shoots down a Pennsylvania Game Commission plan to ban the creatures statewide. As it stands, hunters can kill the animals on sight any time of year, thanks to a Game Commission order aimed at wiping feral hogs from the state.

Earlier this summer, Game Commission officials had planned to extend the feral hog ban to their only legal habitat: high-fenced hunting ranches that allow hunters to kill their stock for a fee. Ranch owners complained that a total ban would unfairly damage their business, but officials said the risk of escape was simply too high.

“They’re terrible,” said Melanie Barkley, agriculture educator at the Penn State University Extension in Bedford of the feral hogs. “They come out at night in a perfectly healthy, wonderful-looking field. It looks like somebody plowed it the next morning.”

The catch-all terms “feral swine” and “feral hogs” cover a series of animals: Some are domestic pigs that escaped, went wild and grew bristly fur and tusks; others are imported boar species that were somehow released into nature. All are considered non-native and a severe danger to wildlife, agriculture and even humans, according to the Game Commission.

While feral hogs have turned up for years throughout the state, they’ve been particularly numerous in Bedford County, Game Commission regional information and education supervisor Barry Leonard said. Barkley said they’ve turned up most often in the southern portion of the county, around Rainsburg and Chaneysville, but state documents have noted problems in Blair, Huntingdon and Cambria counties, as well.

“They come down and pillage the farmlands,” Leonard said. Since the state lifted Bedford County hog-shooting limits in 2011, hunters have sought to drive them out with limited success.

“They became more and more nocturnal. They’re very secretive,” he said, noting that hogs can quickly adapt to avoid their human predators. “They’re a very bright animal.”

Feral hogs can carry livestock-ravaging diseases like pseudorabies and swine brucellosis, officials have said, although Bedford County experts noted that no known cases have spread to farms there.

Perhaps their most dangerous trait, however: They breed prodigiously, Game Commission spokesman Travis Lau said. That, combined with their skill at digging through barriers, spurred state officials to seek their elimination even from closed ranches.

Act 25 renders that plan moot, keeping hogs on ranches so long as their owners sterilize males. Ranch opponents, including the Humane Society of the United States, criticized the bill; one newspaper columnist said Corbett “could go down as the man who infested [Pennsylvania] with wild pigs.”

But for ranch operators like Adam Foor, manager of The Wilderness in Bedford County, the law was a godsend.

Foor, whose ranch offers hog shoots for $525 to $1,500, said Thursday he hadn’t yet heard of the bill’s passage.

“That’s really good news for us. We’re really relieved it happened that way,” he said. “[Hogs] are a fair part of our business.”

Many hunters specifically seek feral hogs and travel long distances to hunt them, Foor said. If three friends plan a ranch hunting trip and just one hopes to shoot a hog, a statewide ban would likely drive the whole group away, he said.

Foor acknowledged that the creatures can escape, even from fenced enclosures, but said ranch owners make every effort to keep them penned in. The chance of escape is no greater than on a farm, he said.

With the Department of Agriculture already overseeing ranches like The Wilderness, additional scrutiny from the Game Commission would have made business more difficult, Foor said. Starting next month, the law will exempt ranch-based hogs from official definition as wild animals, while still allowing hunters to kill them freely on public lands.

“We’re just happy to have one master,” Foor said. “Just don’t put us out of business.”