The call went out to local law enforcement officers on Thanksgiving 2007: An inside source two states away had called to say the contraband was on its way to South Carolina.
Nearly a dozen officers involved in the case dropped their turkey and beat feet to the state line near Aiken, where they awaited a three-vehicle caravan of trucks with the illegal bounty. A plainclothes officer in an unmarked car fell in behind the caravan when it entered the state on Interstate 20.
When the caravan got off the interstate to fill up with gas, the officer pulled up to the pumps and asked, “Hey buddy, what you got in the truck?”
“Nothin’,” was the response.
Then a wild hog in the back of the truck squealed.
The illegal movement of wild hogs is more of a problem than most people realize, according to state wildlife officials. When state legislators this year debated a bill aimed at reducing the wild-hog population by allowing night hunting, S.C. Department of Natural Resources leaders said increasing the fines for transporting the hogs was equally, maybe more, important in the grand scheme.
Organized groups bring hogs and coyotes from Florida or Texas to private hunt clubs for paying customers to hunt, said Natural Resources director Alvin Taylor. The hogs and coyotes are showing up in some areas “not because they walked there,” Taylor said. “They’re coming in the back of trucks.”
For those on the outside of hunting culture, and even for some on the inside, the illegal transportation of wild hogs is difficult to understand. Wild hogs have been around South Carolina for centuries, a population that likely started when domestic pigs escaped into the forests. Within a year in the forest or swamp, a domestic pig grows spiky hair and tusks, transforming into a wild-looking creature.
Wild hogs tear up the banks of creeks and rip through planted crops, rooting for food. The National Wildlife Research Center in 2007 estimated wild hogs cause $1.5 billion in farm and ecological damage annually throughout the country.
In the past half-century, what had been a minor problem in the Lowcountry has spread to become a major problem throughout the state. Wildlife experts know it hasn’t all been natural migration.
A DNR publication in 2008 estimated the wild-hog population in the state at 150,000, but even the biologists who put that together admit it’s a guess and likely much too low. Probably more indicative of the size of the population: The state’s hunters kill an estimated 35,000 wild hogs each year, based on the annual surveys by Natural Resources.
Still, some hunting groups and landowners are willing to skirt the law, paying for hogs to be brought to their property to guarantee a successful day of hunting. That’s legal only if the hogs stay within one county and the sellers get special permits. Movement across county lines is a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and up to six months in jail.
Disease spread at root of problem
Transportation of wild hogs is restricted to reduce the spread of diseases, in particular brucellosis, which causes pigs to abort fetuses. Brucellosis can devastate the livestock industry when it shows up in a state. It is rare in the United States, in part because of strict regulations on the movement of hogs and cattle.
For now, South Carolina is designated as brucellosis-free. DNR officers are among the people working to keep it that way.
The people involved in the Thanksgiving 2007 incident originally claimed “they had bought the hogs down the road for a barbecue,” said the agent who first approached them. (Because he works undercover, he didn’t want his name in this story.) “But we had ’em dead to rights.”
The caravan had about 20 hogs, all in the range of 75 to 100 pounds. The people involved in the transportation eventually pled guilty – “They said they had people come to them wanting hogs and they were going to make them happy,” the agent said – and were fined $1,000 each.
That small fine is seen by big operators as simply a cost of doing business, Natural Resources officials said. They would like to see the punishment raised to $1,000 per hog and forfeiture of the equipment used in transporting the animals. Losing trucks and trailers would hit the hog-importers hard, they said.
“We would like to see tougher legislation on relocation and more education for the public about the problem,” said Capt. Robert McCullough.
The agency has a new advocate in the Legislature.
Kirkman Finlay, elected to the state House in the fall, has dealt for years with hog problems on his family’s 1,400-acre farm along the Congaree River in Richland County. He’s all for anything that reduces the wild-hog population, including easing restrictions on night hunting, making it easier to get a permit to trap hogs and stiffer penalties on transportation.
Finlay traps and kills the hogs on his property, giving them to anyone who wants the meat.
“We killed 500 (wild hogs) on the farm this year,” Finlay said. “After hog No. 200, you’ve given them to everybody who wants them.”
Small fines, short sentences
Wildlife experts say areas near the Congaree River and the upper Santee River have the most concentrated wild-hog populations. Landowners there can’t kill them fast enough. But in other areas, the wild-hog population isn’t large enough to suit some hunters, so they move hogs to their property.
Natural Resources works about 30 hog-transportation cases each year, McCullough said. While a few involve large-scale operations bringing in large hogs from outside the state, more cases are made for moving hogs from one county to another. Many of the tips come in to the agency’s Operation Game Thief line from neighbors angry about the spread of wild hogs in their area.
Case files read like something out of reality TV – “Hogs Gone Wild” meets “Duck Dynasty” with a law enforcement slant.
Wilson mentioned to the undercover agent that he needed to be careful because he had been caught up in a cockfighting sting, and he didn’t want to get into any more trouble. Wilson and a friend, who was a minor, were arrested when they showed up with the hogs in Clarendon County. The case against the minor was dismissed, but Wilson ended up serving 10 days in jail and paying $350 in fines.
When the “buyers” at the boat landing indentified themselves as officers, Johnson looked at them and admitted, “You got me.”
Johnson said it was his first time trying to sell wild hogs. Shortly before meeting with the agent, he had sold one to someone else for $225 and had given away four hogs, he said.
Johnson was sentenced to 10 days in jail on the hog-movement conviction.
Those three cases are more common than the movement across state lines. “There’s more relocation than importation,” the undercover agent said. “We’re growing some pretty big hogs here. We see some pure Russian boars coming in, but that’s not as common as it used to be.”
There’s money in those ugly critters
The transportation of wild hogs is all about money and hunting, which are intertwined in South Carolina. At the more professional operations, like The Buck and Boar in Swansea, hunters pay hundreds of dollars per day to stay in a lodge and be set up to shoot huge hogs. Trophy fees for the largest hogs can bring the total bill to four figures.
Buck and Boar owner Troy Ayer imported Eurasian hogs in the 1990s, before more stringent state regulations on importation were enacted. He doesn’t have to import any more because his property is fenced and the hog population is self-sustaining, Ayer said.
The majority of the state’s hog-hunting operations are “really deer-hunting operations with a hog problem,” Ayer said. “They realize they have hogs and people will pay to hunt them and it’s year-round revenue.”
In some cases, however, those hunt club managers don’t have a hog problem until they create it themselves, according to Natural Resources officers.
“They decide to bring in some hogs to hunt,” McCullough said. “They might kill seven or six of the 10 they let go. The others get out. Within six months, they have offspring. And they can produce three litters a year.”
If there are 100 wild hogs on a tract of land, hunters would need to kill 80 of them each year to keep the population from growing, according to one study.
Even if the imported hogs aren’t diseased, they create problems for neighboring landowners because hogs pay no attention to property lines and show no respect for fences.
Wildlife officials have run into cases where unscrupulous trappers capture hogs in the wild and move them to the edge of a large farm. Then six months later, they return and offer to trap hogs to protect crops on that farmer’s property.
Some farmers have their own traps. Some invite friends to come in and hunt on their property to thin the hog population. Some resort to hiring somebody to handle it for them.
One of the best known of the hog-control companies is Jager Pro, a group of former military personnel operating out of Columbus, Ga.
“We’re all retired soldiers,” said Rod Pinkston, Jager Pro founder and chief executive, “and we say we went from a two-legged enemy to a four-legged enemy.”
Jager Pro has handled cases throughout the country, including South Carolina, but most of its work is done in Georgia.
Typically, Pinkston’s team puts out feeders in winter to draw in the wild hogs on a farm property. They watch the feeders for several days to get a good count on the number of hogs. Then one day they put up a fence around the feeder and set the trap. When all of the hogs they have counted get in, they kill them all.
“You can’t settle for 50 percent or 60 percent. You’ve got to capture every one,” Pinkston said. “Once the hogs have seen traps, the pregnant adults don’t go in. We watched a trap once where we had 30 hogs. The last four to go in were pregnant sows, and they had 28 fetuses inside. If you didn’t catch those sows, you haven’t solved anything.”
Pinkston’s company also offers guided hunts on some of the properties where it helps manage wild hog populations. He knows he won’t be running out of business anytime soon.
“The guys who hunt hogs with dogs, they have no motivation to solve the problem,” Pinkston said. “They say, ‘Deer season only lasts three or four months, but there’s no closed season or bag limit on hogs. Let’s turn some pigs loose.’
“But they don’t know how much trouble they’re causing.”