By Aaron Sumrall, PhD
Owning land is the dream of many, regardless of where they lay their head, as apparent by the realty markets across this great country. Land ownership provides freedoms that few witness but multitudes aspire to experience and finds its way to the bucket list of goals in the lives of many. It is nothing short of breathtaking to walk out on the porch on a cool morning with a cup of coffee, listening to the call of the birds welcoming the sun to a new day of God’s creation, especially on your land. Once the coffee is down and the nostalgia of the morning begins to wane, it is time to go to work to be the good steward of the land that ownership requires.
Working on your land is a labor of love, and dirt under the fingernails most certainly lifts the spirits. There are far more hands on the landscape throughout much of the country than there were a mere decade or two ago. Once in much larger holdings, the land is being divided into smaller sections, making ownership a reality for far more individuals and families. With that comes an escalating number of land management goals and theories for a particular part of heaven on earth. Many will keep the land in some form of production agriculture, wildlife management, or conservation, albeit on a smaller scale. However, some land management ideologies, or the lack thereof, lend to a higher likelihood of the ecosystem falling out of balance or opening the door a bit further for invasive species to get a much stronger foothold.
Sound management does not depend on the size of a parcel of land. It does, however, need to make sense for that particular setting. White-tailed deer management is not an option for a 50-acre property, but managing for songbirds, small mammals, or quail may be an option, with deer visiting as an added perk. Such sound management does begin with great intentions, and we take pride when we see the focused goals coming into view with the increasing land health and desired critters moving about reaping the benefits of your efforts. Your efforts will have direct beneficiaries (livestock, deer, birds, flowers, etc.), but there will also be those who will indirectly benefit from your hard work. Unfortunately, this country is being invaded by thousands of non-native invasive floral and faunal species.
One of the more shameless critters to jump at the opportunity to take advantage of your good efforts in management will be feral pigs (Sus scrofa) across an ever-increasing area of the country. Feral pigs are an unbelievably adaptable omnivore that taught a goat what to eat! Feral pigs will take advantage of any food source and quickly turn it into more pigs. Land management variability on fragmented lands is being discussed in great detail throughout feral pig-occupied landscapes because of species adaptability and the increasing frequency of “sanctuary” land. A property that may have been managed for decades through one management ideology may now, through fragmentation, be managed by and through dozens of new approaches or, in some instances, no management at all.
It is estimated that feral pigs are responsible for an estimated $2.5 billion in economic damage annually in the United States, with that estimation ever increasing. Initially, this damage is witnessed by the local farmers, ranchers, land/wildlife managers, water managers, and the native flora and fauna on the landscape. The indirect effects are felt by every citizen across the country when buying food, textiles, commodities, or enjoying the outdoors through recreation. Effective management of all species is intrinsic for the health of the land and the species that reside upon it. Fragmented land presents a growing challenge in the effort of feral pig management.
Feral pigs are in the top 5 most intelligent species on the planet, frequently ranking #2 only behind the hominids (Apes), lending to the complexity of management. In addition to being highly adaptable and intelligent, feral pigs are susceptible to management pressures. They will quickly identify sanctuary areas separate from any negative pressures and occupy that area for the lion’s share of the day (and night), only venturing out during selective periods of decreased pressure. Such sanctuary locations are growing in frequency, allowing feral pigs to find a safe haven to reproduce uncontrollably and then unleash their destruction on the surrounding landscape.
Surrounding landowners and managers feel the direct brunt of this, but, many times, sanctuary landowners do not realize what is happening to their land throughout the feral pig occupation. Sound management of land surrounding sanctuary lands will increase landscape function and ecological health in many instances, including feral pig control efforts. These control efforts will require feral pigs to occupy sanctuary areas with an increasing population for longer periods. This will result in the systematic destruction of landscape function and ecological health of that sanctuary property. When this happens, where do you think the desirable fauna will go? What will happen to the expanses of wildflowers that brought your eye and ownership to the property?
Plant communities cannot just pick up and move; those native communities could be lost entirely. Soil disturbances brought on by feral pig destruction will result in the loss of topsoil and the increased probability of less desirable or invasive plant species. Many of our smallest residents in the landscape, such as insects and small mammals, depend heavily on niche habitats that only sanctuary properties may hold. Loss of native landscapes will see a decrease in butterfly and hummingbird migrations on properties with lost native vegetation productivity. In addition, erosion will become a reality on properties with high feral pig populations.
Those quail and other birds that once sung to the sunrise will now be residents of the surrounding properties that did implement sound management, including feral pig control. White-tailed deer will find new birthing grounds and lands to forage. Much research suggests that three-quarters of ground-nesting bird clutches are lost in areas of high feral pig populations. Wildlife feeders that once provided nutrition for many species will become pig feeders.
All landowners have the right to do as they see fit under the law on their property, and no one should infringe on that luxury stemming from hard work and goals. With land ownership also comes the responsibility for land stewardship and management. The lack of or refusal to incorporate an integrated management approach for feral pigs and other non-native species is an insurmountable disservice to landscape function and ecosystem health. Please pass along the information on and importance of feral pig and non-native species management so we can continue to watch the deer feed and listen to the birds sing over the wildflower grasslands as the sun rises on the properties we have the opportunity to steward.
About the Author: Aaron Sumrall holds a PhD in Wildlife Ecology from Texas A&M University. He is the Director of Outreach, Education and Research at Pig Brig Trap Systems and has 20+ years of experience in wildlife and animal science management.