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Porkers Pose Pesky Problem in Great Smokies Park

North Carolina: Descendants of boars imported from Europe in 1912, the animals are uprooting ecological balance in country's most visited national park.

April 19, 1998|EMERY P. DALESIO | ASSOCIATED PRESS

GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK, N.C. — The evidence is right there in the thick grass in the mountain forest. It shows the determined digging of a stout snout rooting for wild yams.

Three hours into his daylong search, Cory Murphy notes that the earth appears to have been plowed as deep as six inches, exposing bare dirt and the bulbs below.

"It's almost like a garden-type tiller has been there," Murphy said. Wild hogs had done the kind of damage that has caused the federal government to plot their demise for nearly four decades.

From November to May, the National Park Service pays Murphy, a professional hunter and trapper, to eradicate the pesky pigs that inhabit this 500,000-acre park on the North Carolina-Tennessee border.

He and six other employees capture the wild hogs they can and shoot those too smart to take the whole-kernel corn left inside 5-by-3-foot chain-link box traps.

Last year, more than 300 were trapped or shot. Fewer than 600 remain in the park, officials say.

The effort to depopulate the park's pigs has been forced on them, park service officials say.

The tusked, speedy and crafty critters were never supposed to live in what is now America's most-visited national park. Introduced to the area by man, they have upset the ecological balance of what is considered one of the world's most biologically diverse regions.

"We have species of snail and salamander found only in the park. Both of them have been found in the stomachs of hogs," said Bill Stiver, who coordinates the eradication effort from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park office in Gatlinburg, Tenn.

Wild pigs also rummage through national parks or seashores in Texas, Hawaii, California, Florida and Georgia. Some parks allow public hunting to control the hog populations. Others recruit and pay private hunters.

But in the Smoky Mountains, where there is mile after mile of forests and food on either side of the park border, the battle with wild hogs is perpetual, said Michael Coffey, who oversees wildlife issues for the park service.

"It's probably something they'll be doing forever," Coffey said from Fort Collins, Colo.

Officials believe that after 39 years of trying--the last dozen or so with paid staffers--the number of wild hogs is in check. Last fall, a shortfall of acorns and beechnuts held down breeding, Stiver said.

The problem with pigs is they eat practically anything: plants, roots, berries, beetles, salamanders, snakes, mice and garbage.

They compete with black bears and wild turkeys for nuts on the thick forest's floor. They burrow for bulbs, munch wildflowers and slurp the eggs of ground-nesting birds.

They also reproduce abundantly; the females are fertile year-round, and most produce litters of three to eight piglets annually. Coyotes, red wolves and occasionally bears and bobcats prey on young hogs.

Reaching those remaining has become harder. They're largely nocturnal, intelligent and able to cover great distances. They're seldom seen by park visitors. And they migrate to more remote, higher elevations beginning in April. When that happens, the park service hunters hike into the mountains for a week at a time.

Today's porcine pests descended from animals imported from central Europe in 1912 to a private game preserve about 15 miles southwest of the park boundary in what is now North Carolina's Nantahala National Forest. The owners allowed the numbers to multiply and only killed a handful.

The rest escaped and interbred with domestic pigs that local landowners had allowed to roam. By the 1940s, the hybrid beasts had reached the Smoky Mountains park and into Tennessee.

The park's hogs still show the black hair, long legs and tusks characteristic of European wild boars. Adults average less than 200 pounds.

Objections to the eradication program have come mostly from hunters. They want more hogs shipped to areas where they can track a big game animal that is fast and long-winded enough to give great chase.

"I think that's a universal opinion among the hunters. There are some of them who have maintained that those hogs that are trapped and shot in the traps should be made available to the licensed hunters," said Lowell V. Poling of Knoxville, Tenn., a past president of the Tennessee Bear and Boar Assn.

Stiver said hunting has been more effective than trapping in recent years. Last year, the park caught 92 pigs. Another 244 were shot and killed.

Some of the trapped pigs are transported to legal public hunting areas in the Cherokee and Nantahala national forests. The rest were killed with a bullet in the brain. Some of the carcasses were used to feed the red wolves being held in pens for later release into the park.

The hogs seem to have no homing instinct; only a few have returned to park property. The tagged animals that do return are killed.

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