Feral pigs cost the U.S. $1.5 billion dollars every year. But wild pigs aren’t just endangering wildlife and native plants. The animals are threatening the livelihood of a longtime ranching community in Otero County.
Pig Trapper Lewis Reeves is uses an electronic pig caller. He says letting off a piglet in distress call is one of the fastest ways to get a good shot at a feral female pig.
“I have caught all the dumb ones now I am working on the smart ones and they get smart in a hurry” he says.
Reeves says feral pigs are having as many as three litters every year, as Otero County Wild Life Services Specialist, it’s Reeves’ job to keep those numbers down.
As a one man operation – Reeves drives around the county and the Lincoln National Forest setting up cage traps, outdoor cameras and rancid bait where he sees the tracks and signs of feral pigs.
“We fill this bait tube up with corn and then pour strawberry soda pop on it- we will anchor to a post or a stake in the ground” he says.
Reeves says around these parts strawberry soda is a feral pig favorite. When even that doesn’t get them into traps Reeves takes to the forest, usually at night armed with a semi automatic rifle and night vision gear.
Otero County wasn’t always so concerned with exterminating feral pigs. Reeves says the animals have been roaming the Lincoln National Forest since people started releasing them into the wild for hunting 30-40 years ago.
Releasing pigs into the wild is now illegal in New Mexico. But Reeves says that hasn’t curbed the population. The bigger it gets the more they are threatening livestock and ranching in the area.
“They turn all the grass everything that is growing, they turn it upside down as soon as the sun comes out the next morning and bakes those roots it don’t grow back" he says.
Ranchers like Gary Stone graze their cattle on those grasses. Stone’s family has been ranching for five generations.
“If you take the grasses the only thing your looking at is feed lot type and you do away with the natural with the natural grass feed beef what people are wanting” Stone says.
Stone is the president of the Otero County Cattle Ranchers Association. He says the more grasses and pastures feral pigs dig up and destroy, the more liquid feeds and protein supplements they have to buy to feed to their cattle.
And a lot of the time it’s the feral pigs that end up eating it.
“They would come in on that liquid feed and just actually move the cows off of it" he says.
Pig Trapper Lewis Reeves says the pigs will eat absolutely anything from grubs in the mud to baby birds. There have been cases of them killing baby calves off the ranches.
“It is hard to prove cause when they do they eat the whole thing so you’ve almost got to witness what, when is going on of course“ he says.
But feral pigs may pose an even bigger threat. The animals can carry as many as 32 serious diseases and because they’re drinking from the same water holes and troughs as cattle, Gary Stone says a lot of those diseases can easily be transmitted to livestock.
”If any of these diseases through the water through the feed get into our cattle they have the potential to pretty much shut the livestock industry down and New Mexico is short any way”. he says.
Take brucellosis, cattle infected can lose weight, become lame, and lose their calves.
Reeves works with the ranchers. When he traps and kills a feral pig, he takes blood samples and sends them off to the USDA for testing so ranchers know what vaccines they need to protect their cattle.
And those vaccines are crucial. Reeves says all it takes is one infected cow to create a disaster for all ranchers in the area.
“If you come up positive on brucellosis,your neighbor that has a common fence and has cattle next to your cattle he is quarantined until he gets a clean test” he says.
Reeves says it takes up to a year before a ranch is allowed to sell cattle again after being quarantined.
He adds there is only so much that hunting and trapping can do in the mountainous and dense forest in Otero County. He is hoping a feral pig poison under EPA evaluation will be approved.
The poison has been successful in eradicating feral pigs in Australia and New Zealand. But with officials saying that approval process could take as long as 5 years – it may not come soon enough.