ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. --
A healthy snout and a well-pronounced pair of tusks - that's all you need to inflict extraordinary damage to any well-manicured landscape.
Each year, reports surface of wild hogs wreaking havoc across the installation. They've been known to cause considerable destruction near base housing, in and around the golf course, along Hannah Road and other locations. Due to the growing population problem of wild hogs rooting its way across the southeastern United States, Georgia has had particularly aggressive control programs in place for years.
Plowing the ground
Hunting season at Robins usually lasts about nine months. The fiscal 2014 season was increased to 11 and a half months - the longest hunting season ever authorized on base - according to Dr. Bob Sargent, Robins' natural resources manager and wildlife biologist.
Recently, a group of wild hogs was documented leaving a trail of upturned grass, roots, dirt and 10-foot potholes. The damage left in their wake blemishes the scenery, inhibits grounds maintenance, costs the government substantial dollars to repair or replace turf and reduces food sources for native wildlife.
In conjunction with the Department of Agriculture, the animals were captured using corral traps. More have been captured since.
In this instance the group of three adults and two piglets had successfully found an ideal spot for their feeding routine. Chalk it up to unusually wet winter weather, a diminished supply of acorns, and the fact that moist soil equates to a smorgasbord of treats.
"What's happening here is we've not only had a lot of rainfall, which often pushes hogs out of the river swamp, but the grass is especially palatable right now," said Sargent. "This is a nightly restaurant for them."
The animals in the late winter and spring are starting to eat grasses and more roots, as well as worms and grubs. In doing so they cause a great deal of damage to turf across the base.
"What looks like domestic pigs are frequently crosses between feral pigs and Eurasian wild boar," Sargent said. "They often have spots on them, but have a long, coarse coat, with a more streamlined shape than you'd see in captive pigs. Most of the time when we catch them on base, they look like domestic pigs."
They make a nightly trek out of the nearby wetlands that border the eastern perimeter of the base, and feast on a bounty of earthworms and the like.
Sargent said he has seen them out during daylight, but for the most part they are hidden away from humans in the nearby forest, under cover and away from heat.
But when it comes time to feast, they use their snouts and powerful tusks to plow several inches under the soil to discover a worthy meal.
The results of their escapades are evident in some outlying areas of the golf course. Moist, low-lying areas and ditches are ideal restaurants for them, as are landscaped beds dressed in wood chips or pine straw. They're a magnet for grubs and worms to come to the surface where they're scooped up by the rototiller-like behaviors of hogs.
It doesn't take very many, or very long, to cause damage. Three adult hogs can scar the ground of a football-sized field area in a few nights.
To control wild hogs - considered a nuisance animal in Georgia - a long hunting season, and various trapping methods are used by the USDA and private trappers throughout the year.
Trapping on base
In a typical year, from 125 to 150 hogs are captured on installation property. That's in addition to what's harvested during hunting season.
Terry Owens has been one of the more successful trappers over the years. He builds and sets his own box traps, and cooks the hogs for personal consumption.
Currently, he's one of 12 permitted volunteers who trap on base. In the last two to three months he's caught about 20 hogs.
It's not for everyone, and requires a great deal of patience, persistence and expense. You have to know what you're doing and how to handle them, as there's always the potential they can carry and transmit disease, or injure you with their tusks.
"It's a passion of mine," Owens, who works in the 78th Civil Engineer Group industrial utility shop, said. "It's something I've done since I was a kid hunting with my dad."
He's been trapping on base for roughly eight years. The 20 hogs he's caught in the last few weeks is added to the almost 300 he's caught in the last year and a half (including at other locations).
One of his box traps has captured up to seven wild hogs at a time, including a female and her young. The hogs he catches range in size from 50 to 150 pounds, but can sometimes weigh more than 300 pounds.
What do you do if you run into a wild hog or see one trapped?
"They have a much better sense of smell and hearing than we do. Give them their distance, because on rare occasions they've been known to act aggressively. I've encountered them many times and they always run away," he said.
"Nothing to panic about, but as always, exercise caution. They're big, fast and armed animals."
The most recent data Sargent has seen indicates there are between 4 to 6 million wild hogs in the U.S.
Although the base utilizes trappers and hunters, even resorting to using professional sharp-shooters, what these efforts remove from the hog population is still a drop in the bucket compared to how young and fast they can multiply.
Wild hogs can reproduce at least twice per year, starting when they're six months old, and may produce eight piglets at a time, sometimes 12 in a litter. They can double their population in a matter of months.
"You have to take out 60 to 70 percent of the population every year just to prevent their numbers from growing," he said. "Hunting and trapping doesn't nearly accomplish that - it may take out 20 percent a year.
"We know we're not going to eliminate them. Instead, what we try to do is keep their numbers down and the damage they cause at a tolerable level," he added. "The data from wildlife agencies across the country shows their numbers, in terms of where they're found in counties across the southeast, has doubled on average every 20 years. Doubled ... It's an enormous management challenge."