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Feral hogs went viral — but here's why they're also a worldwide problem

In this Thursday, April 13, 2017, photo, a wild boar walks in a swamp, in Slidell, La. Rebecca Santana, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Feral hogs may be invading Twitter following a poorly timed comment, but the porcine population is actually a major concern.

Twitter users began joking about wild pigs after a user responded to a tweet about assault weapons with a "legit question" about how he should kill a wildly specific range of animals within a specific amount of time in order to defend his children.

"Legit question for rural Americans - How do I kill the 30-50 feral hogs that run into my yard within 3-5 mins while my small kids play?" William McNabb tweeted.

Responses to the tweet were fairly tongue-in-cheek and shoehorned the "30-50 feral hogs" phrase into song lyrics, literature and everyday situations.

Despite the jokes, feral hogs — or wild Russian boars — are actually a concern for various parts of the United States, including Texas and other Southern states. In fact, a report from CBS News in 2017 noted the invasive animals had become so prevalent and destructive in Texas that a bill was introduced that would allow hunters to take their shots from hot air balloons — a step up from shooting the animals from helicopters.

Feral hogs are an invasive species first introduced to the United States for sport hunting in Florida in 1539, according to Gizmodo. While populations remained stable for several centuries, a population boom in the 1990s led to a hog invasion in 48 states.

Feral swine were most common throughout Southern states and in California, according to a 2018 population map from the United States Department of Agriculture. More than 5 million pigs currently roam the U.S., causing up to $2.5 billion in annual damage, CNBC reports.

In an interview with the Deseret News, Jack Mayer, a research scientist and manager at the Savannah River National Laboratory in Aiken, S.C., said the pig population has likely inflated to about 7 million, thanks to human intervention.

"In the '50s, '60s and '70s there were a number of state game departments that were promoting wild pigs as a hunter big-game resource," Mayer said. "So this is kind of something we did to ourselves. Some of these agencies were stocking wild pigs, they gave them game status."

Since then, Mayer said, the opportunistic, 200-pound pigs have become a major nuisance at best and a significant issue at worst. He said pigs in Southern states have also begun intruding on suburban areas, causing significant damage to peoples' crops, yards and cars.

While it's likely the animals aren't gathering in groups as large as 50, there are still enough of them to cause serious damage, according to Mayer. He also said that while feral pigs aren't aggressive by nature, they will defend themselves, which led to 84 pig-related deaths — from just one species of hog — from 2007 to 2017. In that same period, white sharks, tiger sharks and bull sharks collectively killed 64 people.

According to the Guardian, feral swine in Europe carrying African swine fever are out of control across Italy, Spain and even as far as China. Mayer said it's credible that the disease could "jump the pond" and infect the rampant U.S. swine population, which could then infect domestic livestock vital to the pork, beef and dairy industries.

"The stage is set for these invasive animals to cost us lots of money here in the US. And we have finally recognized this is a national threat, and we're starting to try to deal with it," Mayer said.

Notably, Utah is one state without any standing herds of pigs. Utah Division of Wildlife Resources spokesperson Faith Heaton Jolley said DWR biologists don't have any evidence that established, reproductive groups of feral pigs are present in the state. While some pig sightings have been reported in Washington County, Jolley said "it's hard to say if it's a one-off thing" or an established generation of swine.

Feral hogs have been present in Utah before, though. Deseret News reported in 2011 that wild Russian boars seen on Fremont Island could potentially carry diseases that are "almost impossible to control" once introduced to the wider hog population, according to then-state veterinarian Bruce L. King.

So what's being done to control wild pig populations? Methods vary state by state, but the USDA recommends a combination of lethal and nonlethal techniques. Electric fences and trapping have proven effective in preventing damage and disease.

Meanwhile, ground shooting and aerial gunning can be swift — but expensive — population control. Other than that, Mayer says little headway on oral contraceptives and poison solutions has been made due to the unknown impact on other animals.

"If you have a pig that is either killed by the toxin or you shut down with this contraceptives, (and then) you've got a black bear that comes in and feeds on that carcass… What's the impact of that black bear?" Mayer asked. "Well, we don't know yet."

Mayer said to properly cull and control swine populations, state agencies would need to effectively cull between 60 to 80 percent of the population every year, which can be an expensive undertaking. However, some states like Idaho, Wisconsin and New York caught the issue early enough to effectively eradicate it.

"We've now, at least at the moment, declared success and that they're monitoring right now to make sure the pigs are all gone," Mayer said. "But the numbers were low enough when they started that they stood a chance of achieving the eradication goal. You're likely not going to be able to do that in the southeast or on the West Coast."

State efforts to control pig populations are challenged as an "underground swine railroad" in the United States leads to more people every year attempting to release pigs into the wild, Mayer said. It's worth noting that releasing pigs for hunting is illegal in all 50 states — in 2012, the Utah state legislature passed H.B. 505, which made it a class B misdemeanor to release swine into the wild, which means feral hogs aren't readily available to be hunted in the Beehive State.

Utah Big Game Outfitters co-founders Kelly Cox and Coby Hunt said Utahns interested in hunting wild pigs will need to go to northern Arizona, where pig populations are present.