South Carolina has a problem with pigs.
Feral hogs – which now inhabit every county in South Carolina – destroy crops, root up historic archaeological sites and consume resources needed by other wildlife. Hunters, farmers and the S.C. Department of Natural Resources have been struggling to reduce the pigs’ population for about three decades.
They’re survivors, and as skilled survivors they’ll do whatever they need to do to thrive.
Jack Mayer, with the Savannah River National Laboratory
Southern Hog Slayers, a Conway company offering hog removal and guided hunting tours, is on a mission to reduce the damaging hog populations of Horry and surrounding counties. Owner Kenny Lee said the thousands of wild boars throughout the Grand Strand have become a nuisance to farmers and property owners.
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“They are such a draw on natural food sources and they’re competing with the deer,” Lee said. “People just don’t know how destructive they are.”
Hogs were brought to the Americas by explorers in the early 1500s and some eventually escaped, leading to the first population of feral pigs in the U.S., according to Jack Mayer, manager of environmental sciences and biotechnology at the Savannah River National Laboratory.
24.2 Percentage of hog population removed by sport hunting annually
Mayer said sport hunters released wild European boars in the U.S. around 1890, who then mated with the feral pigs, which led to the type of species now generally seen around the Carolinas. People started taking interest in the big game animals in the 1950s and many states started stocking the pigs; South Carolina never promoted the pigs as game animals, Mayer said.
Private individuals in the state, on private land, picked up on the hunting trend in the early 1960s and started releasing pigs into the wild.
“The population just exploded in 1990 in the Piedmont and surrounding areas, where we’ve never seen them before,” Mayer said.
Millions in damage
Now the state is trying to cope with the invasive species on public land and historic sites.
“You’ve got a lot of wetlands in the area, and these animals are very damaging to those ecosystems and agricultural crops,” Mayer said. “They do just as much damage through trampling and rooting as eating.”
Horry County government doesn’t directly handle complaints about the boars but forwards the information to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, said Lisa Bourcier, county spokeswoman.
DNR monitors the damage created by pigs on public land and enforces hunting laws, which have eased up over the last few years. Ben Powell, natural resource agent with DNR and outreach coordinator with the S.C. Wild Hog Task Force, said the damage to Horry and Georgetown land by hogs is extensive.
“There’s tens of millions of dollars worth of damage to South Carolina, and the majority of that is on the coastal plains,” Powell said.
The pigs will eat “anything with a calorie” – mostly grubs, seeds and crops but sometimes small animals – and ruin land, roads and sewers looking for the food. They use their nose and tusks to root up food and trample acres of crops, Powell said.
The pigs can begin breeding at three to five months old and remain fertile for about 10 years, Powell said. Each sow can have a litter of three to 12 pigs up to three times a year, which is partially why the population has grown out of control.
Hogs also contaminate water sources in rivers and creeks, which can lead to contamination of water or food for humans, Mayer said. A contaminated water supply could cost the U.S. millions of dollars and impact grocery prices, he said.
“This is a problem that will potentially cause this country lots of money, and people need to take this seriously,” Mayer said.
Local company providing solutions and stardom
Lee, with Southern Hog Slayers, definitely takes the pig problem seriously. Area farmers and land owners pay his company to remove as many wild hogs as possible from the area to help reduce destruction. He also offers hunting trips for private individuals to tag their very own boar.
Lee, who uses dogs and traps to catch the pigs, said catching a hog isn’t always easy.
“There are times when we’ll go out and the hog will win,” he said. “These aren’t dumb animals.”
The pigs learn quickly and can’t be trapped twice, Lee said. They can also survive serious wounds and learn to run from the smell of humans, which is why hunting with dogs is sometimes more successful, he said.
Part of Lee’s business is guiding people through briars and into mud puddles on the hunt for hogs or deer. He hunts in any part of the Carolinas – with permission to hunt on the land, of course – with the mission to reduce the number of nuisance pigs across the state. Lee and friends love the pig hunt so much they scored a cable television show – “Southern Hog Slayers: The Rootin’ Life,” which airs at 7:30 a.m. Saturday on The Hunt Channel.
“Southern Hog Slayers: The Rootin’ Life” will premier on The Hunt Channel starting at 7:30 a.m. Saturday
The group participated in “The Search: Hunting for the Dream” television competition on The Pursuit Channel earlier this year, which led to their foray into filming their own show. Once the team found out they didn’t win “The Search” they started looking into other avenues, and the new “Rootin’ Life” show just came together.
“If you love what you’re doing you’ll never have to work a day in your life,” said Phil Mace, Lee’s hunting partner and owner of S.C. Wildlife Management. “But this is work.”
The group also leads “adventure” tours for children and veterans in the community, and donates several hundred pounds of processed pork and venison to local churches through its Hunters for the Hungry program.
The hunters want to help reduce the pig population while bringing to light the problem through their new show. Lee and Mace said they hope this sort of exposure puts pressure on lawmakers to help solve the overpopulation, or at least help cap the nuisances’ impact.
Permanent solutions out of reach for now
To get the pig problem under control, hunters must kill about 75 percent of the population every year for nine years, said Mayer, with the Savannah River laboratory. In 2014 there was an estimated 121,417 pigs in the state.
“It is very hard, if not impossible, to remove these pigs from the area,” Mayer said. “Lethal removal is going to help, but it’s not going to be the solution.”
Scientists are working on oral contraceptives to help prevent the pigs from reproducing but the medicine’s impact on other animals and humans hasn’t been studied yet, Mayer said. Labs are also looking at pig-specific toxins but the effects of those toxins on wildlife are still unknown as well.
“Bottom line: we don’t have a good solution to this problem at the moment,” Mayer said.
DNR has made some headway reducing the population of pigs on public land and plans on increasing those efforts, Powell said. For now, everyone should do their part to protect natural resources and prevent any more spread of wild hogs in Horry and Georgetown counties, he said.
While you have a lot of hunters who may want to hunt hogs, and don’t necessarily want to see hogs removed, you have a much larger group of farmers that has more skin in the game that sees the pigs as a problem.
Ben Powell, DNR Natural Resource Agent
If you see someone transporting a trailer of pigs to be released in the wild for hunting – which is illegal in South Carolina – report it to the proper authorities, Powell said.
“We’ve been living with these animals for 500 years now, but they really haven’t caused problems until about 20 years ago,” Powell said. “So something changed, and it wasn’t the pigs; it was us and our behaviors.”