WASHINGTON — On his evening patrols at the Currituck National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina, the refuge's law enforcement officer sees few poachers but lots of wild pigs.
The officer, Matthew Carman, estimates that he sees about 20 pigs, sometimes more, on a typical four-hour patrol.
"And I'm not looking for them," he said.
Carman is one of several officials at refuges across the South who don't care for wild pigs. They're quick to point out that the animals aren't native to the continent, and they say the pigs damage ecosystems and threaten several of the species the officials are charged with protecting.
That's why — in a move that may seem surprising, coming from biologists and conservationists — several wildlife officials are pushing to lift restrictions that keep hunters from killing the animals.
This week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a proposal to ease hunting restrictions at 10 refuges across the country. In recommendations for Currituck, along with refuges in Mississippi and Texas, the proposal lists hogs among the species that hunters will be free to kill.
States, too, are allowing more hunting in attempts to control their feral hog — in layman's terms, wild pig — populations.
Tennessee and Pennsylvania recently have approved changes that would make it easier for hunters to shoot wild pigs. In Texas, Gov. Rick Perry has signed legislation that, starting in September, will allow any licensed hunter to shoot feral hogs from helicopters.
America's wild pig problem is widespread, said Michael Lusk of the National Wildlife Refuge System.
"Southeast or Southwest, any of those states where it's warm and wet, you're going to have a problem with feral hogs," Lusk said.
A former invasive species coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Lusk now manages two refuges in Florida, one of which has a pig problem.
"They do huge amounts of damage," he said. "They're one of the worst invasive animals you can have."
Hogs first arrived in North America centuries ago with Spanish colonizers, Lusk said. Over time, some were released from captivity for hunting and others escaped.
The animals face no natural predators in the wild, and with females capable of giving birth to 40 offspring a year among several litters, their population has exploded.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2005 cited estimates of a feral pig population of 4 million nationwide. It probably has increased since.
That's been bad news for local ecosystems. On top of competing with native species for food and eating small animals and insects that are vital to the food chain, the wild pigs tear up the ground they walk on.
At Currituck, which exists to protect migrating birds, the pigs are destroying the grassy marshes that birds seek out. At the Coldwater River National Wildlife Refuge in northern Mississippi, biologist Becky Rosamond worries that the pigs will churn through the forest's soil and throw off its natural composition, as they have at nearby sites.
At the Trinity River National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Texas, refuge manager Stuart Marcus hopes hunters will go wild.
"For every hog that's shot," Marcus said, "that's one less tearing up our roads and doing damage to our environment."
That approach, however, raises concerns at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
"This is a problem that humans have created," said Stephanie Bell, the associate director of the group's cruelty investigation department. "And unfortunately the pigs are paying the price."
Bell said PETA supported nonlethal approaches, such as installing fences and containing trash and compost more effectively. She argued that as long as environments remain attractive to pigs, hunting won't succeed in controlling their population.
Lusk, from the National Wildlife Refuge System, said that while fences made sense in certain areas, aggressive lethal methods were the only way to bring hog populations under control.
While feral pigs can carry disease, they also are commonly eaten. That's one of the reasons, Carman said, that hunters at Currituck are excited about their new possible target.
After seeing the damage the pigs cause, Carman is excited, too.
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