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Eating a good way to curb invasive species

Hogs have eaten their way through forests and farmland, damaging crops and chasing away desired game. The state hopes its program will help Louisianans eat into the rate of its rapidly growing population.

The problem with feral hogs in Louisiana is neither new nor unique to many regions of the United States. Louisiana Agriculture & Forestry Commissioner Mike Strain says the wild hogs cause about $50 million of damage in the state every year. Eat-outs of crops have been reported for decades. The invasive species also love to dig up seedlings to feast on the tap root.

“We’re killing more than 350,000 each year and the population is still exploding,” Strain said.

So what can folks do? Eat them.

Hog History

Hogs were first brought to North America in the 1500s by Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto. The free-range practice of swine herds and escapes from domestic enclosures loosed the mammals to the wild, according to LSU AgCenter information. In the early 20th century, the more aggressive Eurasian wild boars were brought to the United States for hunters. Despite “game-proof” caging, many escaped and their bloodlines were mixed in the wild.

Documents from the LSU AgCenter state the feral hog as “the most prolific large mammal in North America.” Sexual maturity is reached by the time the pigs are six months old. They can have five to six piglets in each litter, sometimes up to 12, and have up to three litters a year. The population in an area can double in months.

Woody Reed owns several acres of farm and forest land just south of Bunkie. He said he remembers years ago when hunters brought hogs to his area of Louisiana.

“They said they wanted to hunt them,” Reed said.

That was about 20 years ago, he said. Because of the aggressive nature of the hogs, groups — called sounds — have taken over many areas of the state, driving out other game like deer that compete for the same food sources.

Reed enjoys hunting deer on his property but has seen fewer of them in recent years. At the same time, the signs of feral hogs were all over: planted fields had wallows; young plants were eaten or destroyed.

A Better Way? Enter Gene Cavalier, a biologist with the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry who has taken on a role of trapping teacher for landowners and farmers. Strain has tasked Cavalier with finding a way to catch the feral swine, especially the ones that are skittish toward traps.

Cavalier, who worked for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries for 17 years before joining LDAF, said feral hogs are smart. If they have any experience of almost being caught in a trap, or any of their sound being caught, they learn what to avoid. That knowledge is passed on to the next generations.

The BoarBuster trap, sold by a company of the same name out of Oklahoma, is used by Cavalier. He began trapping at state parks and campgrounds where the hogs were problematic. Recently, however, he has been invited by landowners seeking answers to a feral hog problem.

The trap is designed to remotely drop a circular metal fence. It has been effective in trapping the wild hogs, but Cavalier believes the baiting system he has developed to be a better way to trap most of a sound — a family or group — in a single drop.

The science of finding where the hogs are most likely to travel also is essential, Cavalier said.

“I survey the property, get its layout, see where the damage is and analyze for the best place for the trap location,” he said. “You also have to have a relatively level terrain for the trap to work well.”

In the case of Reed’s property, There were many spots where hogs had gotten into areas planted by the farmer. Near the back of the property, however, there was a travel corridor from the cover of a wooded area along a bayou. Cavalier said it appeared the hogs had been up and down the corridor. There was good cover and a water source. So he set the trap where the hogs would see the bait as they entered a clearing near access to the bayou.

To bait the trap, Cavalier digs a small, shallow trench, big enough to be covered by a barrel when laid on its side, and fills the trench with corn. In the barrel tethered to a pole in the center of the trap is more corn. The weight holds it in place so when smaller animals like raccoons attempt to get the corn, they can’t move it.

The large, stronger feral hogs can. As the barrel is rolled by a hog, more corn trickles out, keeping them engaged near the center of the trap, which has a circumference of about 18 feet.

Oftentimes the greatest number of a sound, sometimes the entire sound, gathers in the trap during the wee hours of the morning. That’s when Cavalier springs the trap remotely using an app on his smartphone. At Reed’s property, 87 hogs were trapped over a two-week period. He had sprung the trap only five times.

Hunters Not Enough Hunters already harvest many feral hogs each year. Not enough,however, to reach the goal of taking 450,000 out of Louisiana’s feral hog population, the level Strain said is necessary to hold it steady at 600,000.

Effectively catching them and killing them, however, gives the landowner the problem of discarding the carcasses. Burying them adds to the cost of lessening the invasive species’ population. Leaving them for scavengers, such as coyotes, likely introduces a new problem.

So the second part of Cavalier’s task is to taking the animals to a holding facility or a slaughterhouse.

Charlie Munford can help.

Munford owns Two Run Farms. Its slaughterhouse is in Springfield near Hammond, where the company has processed beef, pork and lamb for Baton Rouge and New Orleans area restaurants for years. It’s also where Two Run Farms began processing Louisiana Wild Boar sausage for the restaurants.

That has been so successful, Munford has changed his business model to concentrate on the sausage. Charlie’s Smoke Sausage, which in its first year is being sold in 70 stores in Louisiana. “We’ve got a really strong team of chefs that’s promoting this,” Munford said.

LDAF helped to establish holding places for the animals until they can be taken to a slaughtering facility. It also is encouraging more companies to do what Munford has done: Process the lean hog meat to an eager market in Louisiana.

“It’s the ultimate organic product,” Strain said.

The hogs have to reach the slaughterhouse alive. So the chaos of herding wild animals into a trailer is the third part of Cavalier’s challenge. He has developed a process that covers the circular cage with dark tarps. Being unable to see outside the cage or the people wanting to get them into the trailer, the hogs settle down. Getting them into the cage becomes easier. Opening the gate and allowing the hogs to see only one opening is a less chaotic way of loading the wild animals.

Promoting Catching, Eating Wild Hogs The long-term goal, Cavalier said, is to teach landowners his method. And although the traps are costly, he hopes that adjacent landowners can build alliances so populations in larger areas can be trapped and taken live to the slaughterhouses.

“There’s another opportunity to make some money back so you can recoup something from the damage or offset costs of the trapping system,” Cavalier said.

Munford said he is happy with his success. He’s had so many hogs — he can purchase hogs on the hoof for 75 cents per pound — that he had to hold off buying feral hogs in May to catch up on his inventory. His motivation, however, didn’t begin with just being a successful businessman. The 35-year-old has a master’s degree in forest science from Yale University.

“I care a lot about forestry,” Munford said. “And the longleaf pine has been a passion of mine.”

Five percent of what he makes for selling his smoke sausage is going toward longleaf pine reforestation. So not only is Munford helping to pay to reforest some areas with longleaf pine, his company also is helping reduce the accelerated growth of an invasive species ... in three flavors, original, green onion and mild.

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