Feds shoot pigs at Congaree National Park

Federal sharpshooters recently ventured deep into Congaree National Park, seeking to kill a type of voracious animal that threatens the reservation’s fragile forested floodplain southeast of Columbia.

Feral hogs are marching across South Carolina, and their destructive ways haven’t spared Congaree National Park, a 27,000-acre swampy forest that’s a cornerstone of South Carolina’s wildlife preserves.

Then, in the government’s latest attempt to control the pig population, parts of the park were closed in October to allow federal wildlife officials to hunt and kill as many pigs as they could find.

Ultimately, they killed 45 pigs, bringing the number of pigs killed by federal agents in Congaree since 2015 to about 1,000, according to the National Park Service.

During last month’s operation, a U.S. Department of Agriculture task force shot wild pigs in several remote areas that had been “heavily affected by pigs,” said David Shelley, an environmental officer at Congaree National Park. . A study by the Monitoring Network documented the damage the pigs were inflicting on plants in those areas.

“This was shooting pigs in the outback as they fed there,” Shelley said.

The National Park Service stepped up efforts to control pig populations in Congaree about seven years ago, persuading the Agriculture Department’s Animal Control Unit to increase its presence in the park. In the first year of the expanded program, more than 100 pigs were killed, the park service says.

Shelley said the annual numbers have remained steady since, with the peak year in 2017 when 241 pigs were culled. Pigs are hunted or killed in pens after being trapped.

Whether the general hog culling program is making a substantial dent in the pig population remains to be seen. Park managers have in the past expressed hope that the program is making a difference, but getting rid of the pigs isn’t easy because pigs reproduce relatively quickly.

Research has shown that up to 70 percent of pigs in an area need to be destroyed to make a dent in populations. The park does not have what it considers a reliable population estimate, although the agency said up to 400 pigs could be in the park at any one time.

pigs at congaree national park
Feral pigs scavenge for grubs at Congaree National Park in February of 2009. THE STATE Archival photography

Pigs are the bane of natural resource managers because they uproot forest floors, devouring everything in their path, from salamanders to acorns and plants. These days, Congaree National Park is concerned that pigs are putting a strain on salamander and snake populations, Shelley said.

“Pigs are extremely impacting the environment with their rooting behavior,” Shelley said. “If it contains a calorie and it fits in their mouths, they will eat it. Roots, nuts, seeds, snakes, turtles. Deer cubs appeared in pigs. Everything.”

In addition to these problems, soil-digging pigs in Congaree are polluting the park’s tea-colored streams with silt and waste oozing out of the earth, officials say.

Stream pollution traced back to pigs

A recent study by a team of scientists, including Shelley, found that some types of pollution in the creeks of the park most likely come from feral pigs. The pollution could not have come from domestic pig farms as none are known in the area, the study says.

And bacteria from human waste associated with septic tanks and sewage systems was also a less likely source, the study indicated. The park is located in an area of ​​eastern Richland County with little development.

“The results of this study suggest that humans are an intermittent source of bacterial contamination and that pigs are major contributors to faecal contamination” in the park, the study concluded.

The problem is noteworthy because fecal bacteria pollution in water can lead to diseases that make people ill. Many of the park’s visitors fish, kayak, and swim in streams, such as Cedar Creek.

“Potential exposures to water contaminated by feral pigs are increasingly common park management concerns,” the study said.

Many pigs are believed to enter the park from adjacent private land. This time of year, they’re drawn to the park when acorns fall to the ground, Shelley said.

Congaree, the state’s only national park, is known for its towering old trees, murky marshes, and wide floodplain. The national park is significant in many ways due to the hundreds of native plant species that thrive there. In addition to huge deciduous and pine forests, the park also features dozens of shrubs, ferns, small palmettes and flowers.

Rare animals include the red-cockaded woodpecker, indigo snake, and southern fox squirrel. The area where the park is located was once home to the ivory-billed woodpecker, now thought to be extinct. The park, about 18 miles southeast of Columbia, attracts more than 100,000 visitors each year.

Because of its ecological significance, Congaree National Park has thousands of acres of federally designated wilderness. Wild areas are so significant that special care is taken to protect their natural features.

Statewide, South Carolina has about 150,000 feral hogs roaming the countryside in all 46 counties, according to estimates from the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.

Many of the animals are descendants of escaped pigs from colonial times. Others have been released into the landscape by sportsmen, so they will have animals to hunt over large tracts, the DNR says.

Nationwide, more than six million feral hogs roam the landscape in three dozen states, according to the federal Department of Agriculture.

wild pigs.  national park service
One pig can produce more than 12 piglets a year, which is why they multiply so rapidly in the wild. Feral hogs are a problem in many parts of the United States, especially in the South. NATIONAL PARK SERVICE Photo provided

In South Carolina, problems with pigs have been documented from places like North Island on the north coast to the Oconee County mountains. On the North Island, DNR-sanctioned hunters managed to push back a pig population that had threatened rare sea turtles.

Because pigs are considered a nuisance and not a game animal, they can be killed on private land any time of year in South Carolina.

Poison and helicopters

In addition to shooting pigs in pens or during special hunts, other methods of population control are being studied, including plans to poison pigs. The poison under consideration is expected to target pigs, but should not threaten other wildlife. Shelley said it’s not yet available for use at Congaree National Park.

Another method of controlling pigs is the use of helicopters. Federal officials will shoot hogs out of the air as they fly over open areas, such as swamps and farmlands. Government shooters did something similar near Congaree National Park along the Congaree River, naturalist Dave Schuetrum said.

Schuetrum, who belongs to a hunting club near Congaree National Park, said the federal government must do as much as possible to keep the pig population down. His hunting club kills about 400 pigs each year, but the animals still roam the landscape near the park.

“I think more needs to be done,” said Schuetrum, who heads the SC Association of Naturalists, a group dedicated to sharing information about the state’s natural history. “These pigs, they’re doing a lot of damage. You think about things like salamanders, they’re eating all this stuff. They are destroying all this native stuff that we have.”

Shelley said the park service is trying. Realistically, the goal is to get pig populations and the damage they cause under control, as it will be difficult to eradicate all feral pigs, she said.

“The goal is to manage the damage,” Shelley said. “Can we reduce hog (damage) to resources in sensitive areas, or around visitors or at sensitive times of the year? That’s really the goal.

CedarCreek_tg0147
A Florida couple paddle upstream on Cedar Creek through Congaree National Park. THE STATE ARCHIVE PHOTOGRAPH

Sammy Fretwell has covered the pace of the environment for The State since 1995. He writes on a variety of issues, including wildlife, climate change, energy, state environmental policy, nuclear waste and coastal development. He has won numerous awards, including Journalist of the Year from the SC Press Association in 2017. Fretwell is a graduate of the University of South Carolina and grew up in Anderson County. Reach him on 803 771 8537.
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