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Wild Hogs Roiling Louisiana Park

Jean Lafitte National Park’s Barataria Preserve, south of New Orleans, faces serious challenges. Rising seas may drown the preserve in the next century. Canals dredged for shipping and oil exploration channel saltwater into the preserve’s freshwater marsh, destroying the plants that maintain it.

“We have a robust but threatened ecosystem that does not need another perturbation,” says Dusty Pate, natural resources manager for the preserve—but a large, grunting, voracious perturbation is what the park has got.

A feral hog photographed in Barataria Preserve by a camera trap set up by Craig Hood of Loyola University, New Orleans.
A feral hog photographed in Barataria Preserve by a camera trap set up by Craig Hood of Loyola University, New Orleans.

Feral pigs have spread rapidly through the preserve since Hurricane Katrina. They are amazingly destructive, park officials and scientists say. Controlling them, says biologist Craig Hood of Loyola University in New Orleans, is “the most important natural resource issue at Baratara Preserve.”

Hood surveyed all the mammals in Barataria Preserve in 2005, right before Katrina hit. His camera traps recorded no feral pigs, and he saw no tracks or scat either. But they were known to be present a few miles east, and after Katrina they started to be sighted in the park as well. It may be a coincidence, but it’s also possible, Hood says, that the storm’s floodwaters washed pigs over the highway that borders the eastern edge of the preserve.

Last year Hood re-surveyed the preserve, deploying camera traps in the same places he had earlier. This time he recorded lots of pigs, mostly at night, and mostly in the forest—but also in marshes. “We have pigs in all the major habitats of the park,” says Pate. “They are everywhere.”

The infestation here is part of a national plague. Established populations of feral pigs have now been recorded in 38 states. Their numbers have exploded since the 1990s, in part because hunters have sometimes released them intentionally or have allowed them to escape from hunting preserves. They’re present now in every Louisiana parish, says Mike Kaller of Louisana State University.

They are omnivorous, smart, and energetic feeders.  “Its not just browsing, it’s tearing up the soil, and compacting the soil—these are 300-pound hogs,” says Hood. They’ll dig holes a couple of feet deep to get at the roots or nuts they’re looking for. The bottomland hardwood forest at Barataria Preserve is perfect habitat for them, because the soil is rich with acorns and pecans from trees planted by farmers into the last century.

Damage done by hogs rooting near the Bayou des Familles, Barataria Preserve. Photo by John Francis.
Damage done by hogs rooting near the Bayou des Familles, Barataria Preserve. Photo by John Francis.

Lately the pigs have also taken to digging up palmettos—the fan-shaped spiky plants, several feet high, that are common in the understory here. They strip the roots and eat the heart.

But pigs also feed on the eggs of ground-nesting birds, reptiles, and amphibians—including alligators—and maybe on some of the smaller animals themselves. Billy Finney, a biological technician with the Park Service’s Gulf Coast Network in Lafayette, is studying reptiles and amphibians in Barataria Preserve by deploying coverboards—3-foot by 4-foots sheets of plywood and corrugated tin. The boards serve as shelters that collect snakes, frogs, and lizards, making them easier to study. “The pigs have now discovered that they can move my coverboards and prey on whatever is underneath them,” Finney says.

In a Texas park, he goes on, he once found the cadavers of four tortoises within a hundred yards of one another. Their heads and front limbs had been ripped off. Finney doesn’t have proof—but he suspects feral pigs.

Pate worries especially that pigs are spreading into the preserve’s freshwater marshes along the tree-covered levees that border the oil and shipping canals.  “I’ve been in areas of marsh where pigs have torn up multiple acres,” says Pate.  By eating entire plants, the pigs destroy the root structure that holds the fragile marsh together, thereby contributing to land loss—in much the same way as do nutria, the invasive rodents that the park has lost hope of eliminating. The patches of destruction left by either animal are called eat-outs.

In 2010, Finney and a partner shot 53 pigs in six months inside Barataria Preserve, hiding in stands with 12-gauge shotguns and night-vision scopes and waiting for the animals to come to feeding stations. But a female pig can have two litters a year of half a dozen piglets each.  The population has exploded again. Pate says the park is planning to take up arms again soon—only this time, they may need airboats or even helicopters to hunt down the spreading menace.

A troop of hogs on a nocturnal prowl. Photo by Craig Hood.
A troop of hogs on a nocturnal prowl. Photo by Craig Hood.

Comments

  1. snufy
    Indiana
    May 25, 2013, 11:40 pm

    Hogs are smart. I once read of a hog that a dog trained to chase cars. That would be scary.
    I should think that a suppressor on a rifle would make shooting them more effective. The muzzle blast scares them.

  2. Umbagog
    California
    May 21, 2013, 1:16 pm

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think it was DeSoto who brought them in, around 1544.

  3. Roger Knights
    Seattle, WA
    May 21, 2013, 4:50 am

    The videos I’ve seen on YouTube of hunters shooting into packs of these animals show 90% or more of them running off after the first shot or two is fired. Hunters should maybe try to get a permit to use a fully automatic rifle in these hunts. (It costs $500 I think.)

  4. Don
    Wisconsin
    May 20, 2013, 9:13 pm

    This would be a situation when a bounty on these pigs would be warranted. Have a season established, and offer a few dollars for every pig eradicated, and allow the hunters to keep the animals for food, or donate to a food bank.

  5. tim
    S.D. ,CA
    May 20, 2013, 8:44 pm

    Sorry “oark” should have been “park”. Slip of the thumb there.

  6. tim
    sandiego ,CA
    May 20, 2013, 8:43 pm

    in the US we have hungry people. In the oark we have undesirable animals with good meat. Bring them together. lnform the hungry people of the free meat, where it is, and how to get it. They will take care of the problem for you. Some of these people may even eat the nutria for you too.

  7. stephen hayes
    oregon USA
    May 20, 2013, 3:06 pm

    I am glad to see my ex in-laws are well and doing fine. They have never looked better. Hi Mother Dee gee I miss watching you eat everything in the house for days on end.

  8. Rudy
    Chicago, IL
    May 20, 2013, 1:46 pm

    Pork chops?

  9. Robt.D.McKenzie
    May 20, 2013, 9:00 am

    Bacon!

  10. Genesis Brown
    Winter Springs
    May 19, 2013, 3:47 pm

    The pigs are spreading, because of natural conditions. These pigs are being flooded out, because of hurricane Katrina’s disastrous storm, they need to find better soil foundation and food for them to survive These loving animals are migrating into other conditions that are just as bad.

    Hurricane Katrina caused a huge mess in the pigs habitat. They are moving forward to try to find ways to survive. Their food and brothers were also wiped away. Their natural way of living is changing.

  11. simon webb
    Vancouver, Canada
    May 19, 2013, 2:28 pm

    Oh come on, we’re humans, surely we know how to eradicate a species!

  12. Ben
    British Columbia, Canada
    May 19, 2013, 11:31 am

    Finney and a partner shot 53 pigs in six months inside Barataria Preserve, hiding in stands with 12-gauge shotguns and night-vision scopes and waiting for the animals to come to feeding stations. But a female pig can have two litters a year of half a dozen piglets each. The population has exploded again. Pate says the park is planning to take up arms again soon—only this time, they may need airboats or even helicopters to hunt down the spreading menace.
    Seems to me humans are the “spreading menace” the pigs wouldn’t have been there in the first place had it not been for people bringing them.