PIKEVILLE, Tenn. -- Wild hogs cause about $1.5 billion in agricultural damage a year in Tennessee, and lawmakers in three counties want to allow landowners to control them with "any means necessary," including controversial hunting dogs.
First cousins Riley Frady and Wendell Oakes, two lifelong residents and landowners in northwest Bledsoe County, say the bill being considered in the Tennessee Legislature would help hunters better control the feral pigs that can root up acres of farmland in a night.
"They're after your seeds and bugs and roots and stuff. They get their food out of the ground," said Oakes, standing at the sawmill on the family farm on state Highway 30 near Fall Creek Falls State Park.
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The website, wildpiginfo.com, operated by Mississippi State University, has extensive information about wild hogs, their history and methods for control. Information specific to Tennessee is also available at www.TNWildlife.org and by calling 615-736-5506.
Report stocking, transporting and illegal sale of wild hogs in Tennessee. A reward of up to $3,500 will be paid to anyone who reports activity that leads to a conviction. To report suspected illegal activities, call the hotline at 615-427-9508.
For many area landowners, Frady is the man to call when wild hogs become a problem. He helped get the measure passed by the Bledsoe County Commission en route to the bill under consideration in Nashville.
If the bill introduced by Rep. Ron Travis, R-Dayton, and co-sponsored by Sens. Paul Bailey, R-Sparta, and Mike Bell, R-Riceville, becomes law, hunters will be able hunt hogs with dogs Bledsoe, Polk and White counties all year around except during deer season.
However, the Wild Hog Eradication Action Team, a 24-organization partnership of state agencies and other groups, wants to get rid of the destructive animals but advocates trapping rather than dogs.
Wild hogs weigh up to 300 pounds and have been reported in almost every state, according to a video produced by the action team. Hogs, most active at night, damage agricultural land, spread disease dangerous to livestock, other animals and humans, and contribute to erosion and water pollution.
In the 1920s, hogs escaped from farms and a hunting preserve in the Appalachian counties of Monroe, Blount and Sevier, and in Fentress, Morgan and Cumberland counties on the Northern Cumberland Plateau, according to the action team.
Tennessee created a statewide hog hunting season in 1999, but it came with an unexpected consequence: people began illegally to stock hogs in unoccupied areas for hunting. That caused populations to soar and territories to expand. A feral pig can reproduce at six months and can have two litters of up to 12 piglets year.
The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency says hogs now appear in about 80 of Tennessee's 95 counties. At present, landowners can kill and trap hogs year-round outside of big-game hunting seasons. Landowners also may seek exemptions to kill hogs at night or to use bait and other means.
"The hogs are a nuisance," said Frady, 75.
But Frady is loathe to hunt feral hogs without dogs. He says they're three or four times more effective than just a hunter with a gun, even if the hunter is in a helicopter. Frady says he has killed up to eight hogs in a single day using dogs.
Although state officials cast a wary eye on hunting with dogs, landowners can seek permission in an experimental area that includes Fentress, Cumberland, Pickett and Overton counties. Landowners can also seek emergency exemptions to use dogs in other areas by contacting TWRA. The exemption can extend up to 21 days.
"The TWRA does a great job; we're just trying to get another layer of protection for the farmers," Travis said Friday. The bill goes before the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee on Monday.
Travis and Bailey said TWRA's temporary permits aren't enough and that more open use of dogs by landowners in Bledsoe, Polk and White would help better tackle the problem.
Bailey, who owns a small livestock operation in White County, said row-crop farmers can lose their livelihoods if hogs are not eradicated. And it's planting season for many crops now.
"What we're seeing is during the spring when farmers get ready to start planting ... these hogs are just coming in as soon as they plant their corn. They come back the next morning they've rooted it up and eaten the seed corn," Bailey said.
"We've got farmers that lose up to one to five acres a night," he said, noting hogs continue to eat the plants once seed sprouts, too.
"It's a huge economic loss for our farmers," he said.
Wild hogs are also a problem in Georgia and Alabama, where landowners are allowed to use dogs to track them down. There are no limits, no season; the states allow hunting over bait and hunting at night. Tennessee now requires landowners to obtain an exemption to hunt at night using a spotlight.
Action team officials in Tennessee contend that the "most effective" means of getting rid of the hogs is to trap them and kill them without letting any escape, but trapping must be done correctly. There are several sophisticated trap designs, some using night vision cameras and automated triggers.
"To keep a population of hogs from increasing, you need to eliminate 80 to 90 percent of the hogs a year in an area to be successful," TWRA regional biologist Ben Layton said.
And recent efforts show trapping is better, he added.
"We tried different control methods in the same location and it took 22 man-days of dog hunting to kill one hog, but it took four trapping days to kill one hog," Layton said.
Hog eradication also provides food, Bailey said. Hogs collected by most hunters are butchered for personal use or distribution to families on a waiting list for the meat.
Frady says he gives away most of the meat from hogs he kills, and the taste is much like the pork purchased at the grocery store.
"You can't tell much difference. The only thing is the meat is darker and it's leaner than the tame hogs' meat," he said.
The bill is headed for the Senate floor and, if it passes in the House committee, to the House floor, Bailey said.
The lawmakers say if the bill passes and hunting hogs with dogs turns out to be a bad idea, it can always be changed.
Contact staff writer Ben Benton at email@example.com or twitter.com/BenBenton or www.facebook.com/ben.benton1 or 423-757-6569.