• Local geologist Alex Glover measures the thickness of the soil on a grassy bald in Avery County being destroyed by feral hogs. (Brandon Roberts/MNJ)
    Local geologist Alex Glover measures the thickness of the soil on a grassy bald in Avery County being destroyed by feral hogs. (Brandon Roberts/MNJ)

Feral hogs wreak havoc on balds

Editor’s note: This is the first in a multipart series examining the threat feral hogs pose to the Roan Highlands.

What took Mother Nature thousands of years to create is being destroyed by feral hogs at a rapid pace. 

“There’s an ecosystem on the Roan balds that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world,” said Marquette Crockett, stewardship director of the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy. “Once that soil is destroyed, it could take thousands of years to regrow the entire bald.”

Local geologist Alex Glover estimates it took 3,048 years for the soil to form on the balds, which he said is about three inches thick in most places. He said controlling the feral hog population is crucial to saving the balds.

“About 70 percent of the hog population needs to be eradicated each year just to maintain the current population – that won’t even decrease it.” Glover said. “A sow becomes sexually mature between 6 and 8 months old and can have up to two litters of 10-to-18 piglets each year.”

If enough grass is dislodged, the soil has nothing to keep it in place and could cause total erosion and complete devastation of the grassy balds, Glover said.

Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, or SAHC, and its Roan Stewardship partners met in summer 2014 to discuss the growing threat posed by the invasion of feral hogs into mountain landscapes and how to combat their spread. These non-native animals threaten the health of local ecosystems, including impacting rare species, destroying fragile habitats and contaminating water sources, according to the SAHC. 

“Working with our partners, including USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service – Wildlife Services (APHIS), we began initial monitoring and trapping efforts on the Roan in winter 2014,” Crockett said. 

The monitoring and trapping efforts were seemingly successful — hogs were documented, trapped, tested for disease and removed from both Mitchell and Avery counties. A number of trapped hogs tested positive for either Swine brucellosis or Pseudorabies.

“Feral hogs can spread disease to humans, our pets and livestock,” Crockett said.

About the same time SAHC and its partners began coordinating efforts in the Roan, the problems caused by feral hogs gained national attention. In 2015, APHIS received federal funding to implement a collaborative, national feral swine management program in the 39 states with a recognized feral swine population, according to the SAHC. 

“The overarching goal of this APHIS National Feral Swine Damage Management Program is to protect agricultural and natural resources, property, animal health, and human health and safety by reducing feral swine populations in the United States,” according to a press release from the SAHC.

“In States where feral swine are emerging or populations are low, APHIS will cooperate with local partners to implement strategies to eliminate them,” Crockett said. “SAHC’s existing, multi-agency partnerships in the Roan qualified us to submit the Roan Highlands project for consideration under the new APHIS program.”

The SAHC’s submission was approved and the Roan Highlands project is in operation.  

“By using a large-scale, multi-agency approach, we hope to eradicate this destructive species from our mountains,” Crockett said.

The MItchell News

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