Cotton State Hog Prospects
December 12, 2005
Whether it's on private or public lands, hunting wild hogs is becoming popular in Alabama. Let's have a look at this action.
It was such a perfect shot. I'd been stalking two pigs for the past 20 minutes, slipping up on them through the brush and palmettos. Both of them - one spotted, one black - were about 100 pounds, well filled out and perfect pork for the table.
Now I was peeking through an opening in the brush, and they were 20 yards away. The breeze was toward me, and they were busy crunching acorns, intent on filling their bellies.
Finally the spotted one turned broadside and gave me the shot I wanted. I drew, set the 20-yard pin behind her shoulder, and released the arrow. The shoat grunted as the arrow hit her behind the shoulder; then she trotted across the opening in which the two pigs were feeding, looking puzzled. After a moment, she staggered and went down, and I had pork chops for the freezer.
In some parts of Alabama, this kind of hunting is a rare thing. But in other parts of the state, hunters have the opportunity to harvest pork for the larder. And for those hunters lucky enough to have access to private land with a hog population, they can do so at any time of the year.
HOW DID THEY GET HERE?
The first thing to understand is that "wild" hogs aren't really wild; they're feral. That means they're domestic animals that have escaped and are able to reproduce, so they've become naturalized in the area. Hogs first came to the New World in 1493 with Columbus, when he brought them to the West Indies. Later explorers, and then settlers coming from Europe, brought hogs with them as well. These were turned loose or kept in an open-range situation, so that by the middle of the 18th century, feral hogs were a part of the American landscape in many places.
The first law that prohibited free-ranging animals wasn't passed until the latter part of the 19th century, so from the late 1770s up until the early 1900s, there was a lot of free-ranging livestock. The hogs that are in Alabama today are just domestic hogs gone wild.
Having those hogs out in the wild hasn't been without a down side. Any time you introduce a large mammal into an environment where it's not native, you run the risk of that animal causing damage to its new environment. Feral hogs do just that. They can damage pastures, timber, agricultural crops and even wildlife plantings by rooting in them and destroying the plants and young trees. Their rooting also damages native habitats because the plants that evolved here aren't adapted to recover from the rooting behavior of pigs.
"Hogs do a tremendous amount of damage to their habitat," says Rick Claybrook, District IV supervisor for the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries. "They also do a lot of damage to agricultural crops and pastureland. They root up large areas of pastureland and destroy crops, and they cause tremendous damage to agriculture. But hunters love them."
Feral pigs also compete with native wildlife for food and other resources. Because they're omnivores, eating almost anything, they damage nests and destroy the eggs of ground-nesting birds, including turkeys and quail. In areas with large hog populations, biologists sometimes can see the effects on other species, including deer, because hogs take resources other animals need to reach their full potential.
All of that said, however, hogs are loads of fun to hunt and can make great table fare. So with the rise in the hog population in some parts of the Cotton State, hunters have a new game animal that can be a part of their annual hunting ritual.
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
In the spring of 2004, no one had a really good map or list of counties showing where huntable populations of hogs can be found in Alabama. However, in cooperation with scientists at Auburn University, biologists are in the process of creating such a map.
"The biggest population is down in the southwest part of the state, in the drainages there," Claybrook says. "The rest of them are just scattered here and there throughout the state."
Keith Guyse is assistant chief of the DWFF Wildlife Section, and he is one of the biologists working on an updated map of where hogs are located in the Cotton State.
"At this point, there are a few hogs in almost every county," he says. "The few counties that didn't show hogs on the map we had three years ago are probably going to show them this time. But the thing about it is, they're mostly on private land. There are very few of them on public land. Hunters pressure them so hard that they don't stay there, and then it's real hard to get access to them. Even though we have a few hogs that are widely distributed over the state, it's still very hard to get access to hunt."
And hogs continue to spread, at least a little.
"They're spreading some," Claybrook agrees. "But they spread pretty slowly. There are a lot of isolated populations, and it seems like they don't spread very fast."
In some cases, hunters have moved feral hogs from place to place, he adds, which is how those isolated populations have developed. Moving hogs around in this way, however, isn't legal.
"We're trying to control that, but people still occasionally get away with moving them," Claybrook says.
RULES AND REGULATIONS
Regulations differ when it comes to hunting hogs on private land vs. hunting them on public land.
"Hunting on private land is year 'round," Claybrook explains. "However, it's daylight hours only. There's no size or bag limit."
Assistant Chief of the Law Enforcement Section Craig Hill says hunters can use dogs, guns, bow and arrow, or spears to hunt hogs in the state. Hunters who run hogs with hounds need to be aware of some special regulations.
"You can run them at night, but you can't use a weapon, period," he points out. "If you're going to run them at night, it's with dogs only."
When the rules say no weapons, that means no weapons of any kind, including a knife with which to castrate a hog.
However, you can trap them on private land, with the landowner's permission. If you do capture a hog - whether with dogs or in a trap - the only place you can legally release it is on the same property where you caught it in the first place.
"It's illegal to load them up in a vehicle and take them to another location," Hill states.
This is true even if you're taking the hog to be butchered. You must kill the animal before you move it anywhere.
"We don't want anyone loading hogs up, transporting them somewhere, and then turning them loose on another piece of property," Hill warns. "Another consideration is the diseases that some of these hogs have, which we don't want transported around the state. Anytime you move an animal, you're not moving just the animal; you're also moving around any kind of parasites or diseases that the animal's got."
One more thing about running hogs with hounds is worth noting. You can't run dogs after 3 a.m. or during the daylight hours of spring turkey season.
HANDLING YOUR HOG
Wild hogs sometimes carry diseases that can be passed to other wildlife, domestic animals and humans, including cholera, pseudorabies, brucellosis, anthrax and tuberculosis. This means that when you clean a hog you have shot, you need to take precautions to protect yourself so that you don't take these diseases back to any animals you might have that would be susceptible, or catch any of them yourself.
Brucellosis and pseudorabies can cause abortions in sows, and brucellosis can make boars infertile. Pseudorabies weakens the immune system, and makes hogs susceptible to other diseases. Both of these diseases can be transmitted to domestic animals.
Humans are susceptible to brucellosis, which causes a variety of vague flu-like symptoms that just do not go away. The organisms that cause brucellosis are a group of bacteria that live in the blood, bone marrow and lymphatic system, including the liver and spleen. If you clean a hog without wearing gloves, bacteria can enter through small cuts and scratches on your hands. As you cut into the carcass of the animal, a number of the organisms are released into the air, where you can inhale them.
If you clean a wild hog, always wear rubber or plastic gloves, and always clean up with soap and hot water when you are done. If you are in a confined area, wear a dust mask as well to avoid inhaling the bacteria.
Heat kills the bacteria, so you are not at risk if you eat well-cooked meat from a sick animal. In fact, when domestic animals are found to have brucellosis, one cure is to send the animals to the slaughterhouse.
HUNTING ON PUBLIC LAND
One wildlife management area with its share of hogs is the Lowndes WMA, in northern Lowndes County near White Hall. The entire WMA covers 10,242 acres, but hogs are confined to only part of the tract.
"There are hogs on what we call the South Road Area," Claybrook explains. "We have about 4,500 acres of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers land that has hogs. We're trying to control them, because they do a lot of damage to the habitat. We consider them kind of a nuisance animal, and in order to control them and keep the population down, we've tried to provide a lot of hunting opportunity."
For the past several years, the DWFF has been holding a special hog hunt in September, prior to the start of the regular hunting season.
"It's kind of early, but that's when the hogs are there," Claybrook says. "The hogs get back in the swamps and on private lands when you put a lot of pressure on them. In September the roads have been closed and we haven't had any other hunting, so the hogs are on the area when we have the early hunt."
Although hunters don't take huge numbers of hogs, they do kill quite a few of them.
The land that makes up the Lowndes WMA was purchased by the Corps of Engineers as mitigation for the Tenn-Tom Waterway project.
"It was purchased to replace bottomland hardwoods that were lost as a result of the Tenn-Tom project," Claybrook says. "A good bit of it is bottomlands and swamp, with some cropland and pastureland that's been planted in a variety of mast-producing hardwood species. The trees are 8 years old or a little less, and it's getting pretty thick by now. The rest of it is pretty much swampland, and that's where the hogs like to get - where they have a lot of palmettos and some great cover to hide in."
The early September hunt specifically for hogs is not the only time you can go after the porkers. They are legal game during the archery hunt on Lowndes.
"When bowhunters are deer hunting, they can take hogs," the biologist points out. "We have no bag limit or size limit at all. The same goes for squirrel (season). We allow .22 Magnums when people are squirrel hunting during small game season."
That's enough gun to also bring down a small hog, if you hit him right.
"And we even allow hog hunting during spring turkey season," Claybrook adds. "Hunters can take hogs during any hunting season, but they have to be hunting with whatever firearm is legal during that season for the game hunted."
In other words, you can't hunt a hog on Lowndes WMA with a high-powered rifle during squirrel season. You can only use a gun that's legal for squirrel hunting in Alabama. However, hunters who go onto the Lowndes WMA during the special September hog hunt can carry either a high-powered rifle or a shotgun with slugs.
OTHER PLACES TO GO
Several other WMAs have some hogs on them. The hog hunting on these areas isn't necessarily good or consistent, but hogs are there, so you at least stand a chance of seeing a porker while you're out in the woods.
Frank W. & Rob M. Boykin WMA
Boykin WMA, which covers more than 18,000 acres, straddles Washington and Mobile counties near Citronelle. The area is mostly pinelands, with some creek drainages that contain a few stands of hardwoods.
The hog population on Boykin is not large, although hunters may take one now and then.
W. L. Holland & Mobile-Tensaw Delta WMA
Weighing in at the upper end of the scale, W.L. Holland-Tensaw comprises more than 58,000 acres of marsh and timber, and more than 15,000 acres of shallow water. Located in Baldwin and Mobile counties, the area extends both north and south of the I-65 causeway. Biologists say this area has a constant and fairly dense population of hogs.
The habitat on the area is, at best, difficult to get into. It's all river swamp that's boat-accessible except for about 900 acres, which is the only portion of the area that you can drive or walk in to.
This area comprises 45,000 acres, which is national forest land that the DWFF manages in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service.
The uplands on the area are mostly pine, but there are thick swamps as well. The bottomlands are hardwoods, and there are numerous creeks. Oakmulgee is one of the better areas for hog hunting, although even here you won't be covered up in the animals.
Located near Coffeeville in Clarke County, Scotch WMA covers more than 18,000 acres. The habitat on the area is mixed pine and hardwood, and there is some hilly land.
The hog population on Scotch varies from year to year, but every year some porkers are taken on the area.
Upper Delta WMA
Larger than a number of other WMAs in the system, Upper Delta encompasses almost 36,000 acres of Baldwin and Mobile counties near Stockton. Most of Upper Delta is water-accessible, and you can drive in to about 12,000 to 14,000 acres that are vehicle-accessible. The area that can be reached by boat in the southern end is where you'll see most of the hogs.