NEW ORLEANS - A preservative used to cure bacon is being tested as poison for the nation's estimated 5 million feral hogs.
Descendants of both escaped domestic pigs and imported Eurasian boars, the swine cost the U.S. about $1.5 billion a year - including $800 million in damage to farms nationwide.
Hunting and trapping won't do the trick for these big, wildly prolific animals. So, the U.S. Department of Agriculture kicked off a $20 million program this year to control feral swine, which have spread from 17 states in 1982 to 39 now.
In this April 30, 2012 photo provided by trapperjohnschmidt.com, a feral hog caught by trapper John Schmidt is caged in New Orleans. An estimated 5 million swine, descendants of both escaped domestic pigs and wild Eurasian boars imported by hunters, do about $800 million in damage a year to farms nationwide. Damage outside farms and population control bring the annual total to $1.5 billion.
Sodium nitrite is far more toxic to pigs than people and is used in Australia and New Zealand to kill feral swine. USDA scientists say it may be the best solution in the U.S., but they're not yet ready to ask for federal approval as pig poison.
Vance Taylor of Brooksville, Mississippi, has seen up to 50 hogs in a field at once. He estimates the animals cost him 40 to 60 acres of corn and soybeans a year. They once rooted up about 170 acres of sprouting corn; they trample ripe corn, taking a few bites from each ear.
"It looks like a bulldozer has been through your field," he said. To minimize damage, he hires a hunter and sometimes even heaps corn away from his fields so they'll eat there.
Males average 130 to 150 pounds but can range up to 250, and hogs snarf down just about anything: peanuts, potatoes, piles of just-harvested almonds. Rooting for grubs and worms leaves lawns, levees, wetlands and prairies looking like they've been attacked by packs of rototillers gone wild. Swine compete with turkey and deer for acorns, and also eat eggs and fawns.
Nor is damage limited to their eating habits. Feral pigs' feces were among likely sources of E. coli that tainted fresh California spinach in 2006, killing three people and sickening 200.
To stay even, at least 70 percent of an area's feral pigs must be killed each year, said Fred Cunningham, a biologist at the USDA's National Wildlife Research Center field station in Starkville, Mississippi. Texas alone has an estimated 2 million feral swine.