It has all the makings of a horror movie — a 300-pound beast with oversized teeth running amok in forests and fields, eating everything it can.
FLORENCE, Ala. (AP) — It has all the makings of a horror movie — a 300-pound beast with oversized teeth running amok in forests and fields, eating everything it can.
Instead, it is a real-life scenario that is becoming more common in the Tennessee Valley and across the nation as the feral hog population expands.
Feral hogs, descendants of farm animals that escaped or were purposely set free, are wreaking havoc on farm crops and pastures and destroying wildlife habitat throughout the nation. Wildlife officials estimate the nation's feral hog population at more than 4 million, and estimates show they cause more than $1.5 billion in damage each year in the United States.
Feral hogs are not just a problem for rural areas.
In 2010, hunters were called in to help remove feral hogs that invaded the Florence sportsplex on the western edge of the city. Traps also were used in the effort to remove hogs from the sportsplex.
Todd Nix, community services director for the city of Florence, said the wild hogs learned to avoid the area after hunters and traps were used in the effort to remove them. Nix said hog tracks can still be found at the edge of the sportsplex property at Alabama 20 and Gunwaleford Road, but the swine have learned if they come into the open they may be shot or trapped.
"We have eliminated the problem, but we have not eliminated the hogs,'' Nix said. "That was not our goal. We knew we would never get rid of all the hogs, but we wanted to train them to stay away from the fields at the sportsplex.''
Hunting and trapping are the two most popular methods used to slow the feral hog population explosion.
Biologists admit hunters cannot eradicate the wild hog population, but hunting helps keep the animals under control.
There is no closed season or bag limit for feral hogs in Alabama. Permits are available allowing landowners and farmers who are being overrun by feral hogs to hunt them at night.
Officials at Bankhead National Forest are asking hunters to join a feral hog hunt that runs through Sept. 18.
Barry Baird, biologist at the Black Warrior Wildlife Management Area in Bankhead Forest, said he hopes hunters will take advantage of the upcoming hunt and help reduce the feral hog population there.
"They are real nuisance,'' he said. "The more hunters can remove from the forest, the better.''
In Tennessee, lawmakers have removed game animal status for wild hogs, reclassifying them as a nuisance and liberalizing harvest limits.
"Feral hogs are a huge problem,'' said Allison Cochran, biologist at Bankhead National Forest. "They are a nuisance animal that causes extensive damage to the land and native plants, and they compete with native wildlife like deer and turkey for habitat. Feral hogs are the number one enemy for native wildlife and plants.''
Chris Jaworowski, a wildlife biologist for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said there are few things wild hogs won't eat.
"A hog is an opportunistic omnivore,'' Jaworowski said. "Pretty much anything they can get in their mouth, they are going to eat.''
A feral hog's diet includes acorns and other food eaten by native wildlife.
"A hog going through the forest where there has been an acorn drop is just like a vacuum cleaner,'' Jaworowski said. "They will pick the forest floor clean of acorns that could have provided food for native species.''
Feral hogs will eat wild turkey eggs and those of other ground-nesting birds, Cochran said.
They also eat birds, frogs, deer fawns and other animals they are able to catch.
In addition, feral swine can destroy endangered plants by rooting and wallowing. Erosion caused when the hogs root up the soil can lead to silt in nearby streams and harm rare fish and other animals that live there, Cochran said.
Jaworowski said feral hogs were once limited to southern Alabama. In recent years, the animals have spread throughout the state, though.
"We now have feral hogs in pretty much every county in the state,'' he said. "It's not just a problem in Alabama. It's a national problem. Since 1982, feral hogs have spread from nine states to 45.''
The earliest feral swine in Alabama were escaped hogs that European explorers brought to America almost 500 years ago.
Jaworowski said more recently, well-meaning hunters played a major role in the proliferation of wild hogs. He said hunters hoping to create hog-hunting opportunities close to home would catch the animals in one area and move them to another. Also, farmers who no longer can afford to feed their hogs have released them throughout the state. Once the animals are released, their population typically increases rapidly and the animals spread to adjoining property.
Department of Conservation biologists said it's impossible to estimate the number of wild hogs in Alabama because the population is expanding so fast and the animals are most active late at night and rarely seen by anyone trying to count them.
Ron Eakes, a supervising biologist at the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources office in Tanner, said it's undeniable that the state's feral hog population is increasing rapidly.
The typical feral sow has two litters of four to 14 piglets each year. He said two pairs of wild hogs and their offspring can produce 16,000 piglets in three years.
"They reproduce incredibly fast,'' he said. "With no predators, it doesn't take long for a population of feral hogs to reach problem levels once they move into an area.''
The hogs generally live six to eight years.
Jaworowski said a single adult feral hog can cause $2,000 in damage to farm crops in a year. Alabama farmers reported they caused more than $90 million in damage to their crops in 2010. That doesn't include the amount of money being spent in an effort to eliminate them.
"Wild hogs are a huge problem for agriculture,'' said Eric Schavey, a regional agent for the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. "They will walk through a field knocking down corn stalks and eating the corn. They will root in wheat fields and soybean fields, causing lots of damage.''
Florence farmer Randall Vaden has had wild hogs damage his fields along Gunwaleford Road.
"They can really ruin a cornfield,'' Vaden said. "I've seen them go row by row digging up the seed when a field is first planted in the spring and then come back and push down the stalks to eat the ears in the summer.''
Jaworowski said hunters who released swine likely did not realize the problems the animals would cause.
"They didn't know the hogs were going to take food from the deer and wild turkey and destroy the turkey and quail nests,'' he said. "They didn't realize the hogs they released on their 200-acre hunting lease were going to leave that property and cause problems over a large area. A hunter who lets a hog go can cause problems for farmers 10 miles or more from where the animal is released.''
It is illegal to release swine into the wild in Alabama and Tennessee or to transport live feral hogs.
Dwight Cooley, manager of Wheeler Wildlife Refuge in Decatur and Key Cave Wildlife Refuge in Florence, said crops planted at both refuges have been damaged by feral hogs. Grain crops are grown to provide food for wildlife. At Key Cave, a portion of the property is rented to a farmer who grows cash crops such as corn and soybeans.
"The feral hogs can cause major damage by rooting up the corn and soybean fields,'' Cooley said. "Where they have dug up the ground, it looks like the war movies where mortars have hit and left big craters in the ground. Feral hogs can do a tremendous amount of crop damage.''
Jade Keeton said wild hogs frequently damage food plots for wildlife on land in western Lauderdale County where he and his family hunt.
Despite the damage, wild swine have redeeming qualities.
"They are really good to eat,'' Keeton said. "I mean really, really good to eat.''
In Tennessee, landowners are being urged to kill every feral hog on their property. Feral swine in Tennessee are no longer protected by hunting laws.
Doug Markham, a spokesman for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, said the state's wild hog population has risen dramatically in recent years, prompting lawmakers to declare open season on the animals. Permits are available to allow wild hogs to be shot at night in Tennessee and to be lured into shooting range by spreading corn or other bait on the ground.
"We no longer refer to harvesting wild hogs as hunting,'' Markham said. "We are calling it eradication. We know we will never be able to eradicate them, but hopefully we can slow them down.''