SC has thousands of wild hogs. Feds use helicopters to kill them

Federal wildlife agents have shot more than 1,000 pigs from helicopters in South Carolina during the past five years – and they’re looking for more places to hunt nuisance swine.

Virtually all of the helicopter hunting has occurred in and around wildlife refuges in the Charleston and Georgetown areas, where hogs roaming in open marshes are easy targets for federal shooters.

Now, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says it is considering expanding the service to other areas as part of the agency’s war on nuisance pigs.

“Basically, the philosophy is if we can see the pig from the helicopter, we can probably kill it,’’ said Noel Myers, state director with the USDA’s wildlife services division.

Myers did not say which counties were being looked at, but said the aerial hog-killing program works best in large open areas where pigs are easy to see from the sky. His agency’s aerial hunting program typically is conducted in late winter after duck-hunting season and before turkey hunting season.

The USDA’s efforts are part of a concerted push in South Carolina to reduce the population of feral hogs, which wildlife officials say are overrunning the countryside. As it stands, feral hogs eat row crops, munch on tree saplings and root up natural forests. Many of the hogs are descendents of domestic pigs that escaped from farms years ago, while others have been released by landowners to hunt.

Statewide, South Carolina has an estimated 150,000 feral hogs, with hunters killing about 30,000 of the animals annually, the state Department of Natural Resources reports. The USDA’s wildlife services division kills about 1,000 hogs each year, mostly by trapping and shooting the animals. The aerial program is part of the overall hog-killing effort. Wildlife officials say hogs are hard to eradicate because they reproduce quickly.

“We are there to reduce damage and knock down that hog population,’’ Myers said. “We are looking at expanding to other areas of the state to kind of see how it works.’’

Any helicopter hunting expansion would focus on large tracts of public and private land, often comprising thousands of acres, instead of smaller properties, Myers said.

Myers’ division of the USDA is specifically charged with ridding communities of what are considered nuisance species. Efforts through the years have ranged from trapping hogs at Congaree National Park to rounding up geese from a Sumter neighborhood.

The aerial hunting program being used in South Carolina, launched about five years ago, is similar to those that have been relied upon in western states to kill a variety of nuisance wildlife. Some of those programs have proven controversial, depending on the species being targeted. Some animal welfare groups have said aerial shooting programs are cruel.

Ben Gregg, director of the S.C. Wildlife Federation, said he favors reducing the feral pig population, but questioned why more people had not been told about the program to shoot pigs from the air. Gregg said he became aware of the program only recently. The USDA has put the aerial shooting program on public notice as part of a larger feral swine plan, but has not specifically advertised the helicopter program in South Carolina. Myers termed the aerial shooting effort as a “pilot’’ program.

“It seems like anything they do on this scale would have to have some type of public input,’’ Gregg said

But Robert Abernethy, who heads the nine-state Longleaf Alliance, said any tool to reduce the hog population is worth considering. His group advocates restoration of longleaf pine forests, which once were common in the South but have been vastly reduced since Colonial times. It was recently notified of the USDA’s plan to expand the aerial hog-shooting program.

“If you plant longleafs without dealing with your hog problem, they will get into that newly planted stand of young longleafs in 12 months and they will dig up and eat that seedling,’’ Abernethy said. “They will decimate a longleaf pine plantation. Anything that’s effective to get hogs is a good idea. They are so destructive.’’

To reach the USDA’s wildlife services division, call 1-866-487-3297.