Feral pigs go hog wild in South Carolina, worrying naturalists

To the chagrin of landscapers, farmers and golfers across the Lowcountry, there may be no slowing the state's booming wild hog population, experts say.

The Palmetto State is home to the nation's sixth-largest population of wild hogs, many of which are hybrids of domestic pigs released into the wild and Eurasian wild boars released by hunters in the early 1900s.

South Carolina has 90,000 to 280,000 wild hogs, according to Jack Mayer, a feral-swine expert at the Savannah River National Laboratory in Aiken. Mayer said the population estimates are so varied because the pigs often live in dense forests and isolation, making them difficult to count.

"We don't have a good handle on the actual population," he said. "We say that there are 2 to 6 million wild hogs nationally. That's a pretty big spread. The truth is that we don't really know how many of them there are."

The hogs can be found in all of the state's 46 counties, Mayer said. Most of them are found in swamps and along the drainage corridors of South Carolina's major rivers, including the Savannah, Combahee and Broad rivers near Beaufort County, Mayer said. The pigs have been spotted throughout Beaufort County, including at Sun City Hilton Head, Mayer said. Attempts to reach officials at Sun City were unsuccessful.

Carrying disease, eating "pretty much anything" and uprooting lawns, crops and golf courses, the pigs are a serious concern for wildlife officials in the 36 states with established populations, said Joseph Corn of the Southern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study at the University of Georgia.

"Feral swine have a very high reproductive rate and are very hearty animals. That's why we're seeing all of these new populations," Corn said. "Controlling an animal like that is very difficult."

This weekend, wildlife officials hope to enlist the help of hunters and their dogs to help reduce the population of wild hogs on North Island in Georgetown County.

Jamie Dozier, a wildlife biologist at the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, said the pigs are a threat to the island's native wildlife.

"We haven't had them historically, but they started showing up within the last five or six years," Dozier said. "They'll eat pretty much anything, and on North Island, they've been eating loggerhead sea turtle eggs and destroying the nests."

Hunting wild hogs, which can grow as large as 500 pounds, is legal on private property year-round, Dozier said.

But hunting likely won't be successful in keeping the animals from running hog wild in South Carolina or any other state with an established population, Mayer said.

"Lethal removal would help keep the numbers down, but it won't control the population," Mayer said. "You'd have to kill 70 percent every year for nine years to keep the population under control. That's a tough order. Game hunting now only accounts for 20 to 50 percent of the population."

Mayer said several researchers are working on a swine birth-control pill that could be placed in bait.

"There are a few companies right now working on that, and the first that finishes will be very wealthy," Mayer said.