| Posted: Fri Jun 02, 2006 7:59 am
Charles Kalinowski traipsed for decades across his 300-acre farm without much worry. A towering, bearded 60-year-old with massive hands and a weathered face, he never used to carry a gun when he worked the land.
Then the wild boars showed up.
“We never seen them before, we didn’t know nothing about them,” Kalinowski said last week as he pointed to a field where he first saw the hogs.
“I heard people talk stories about them, guys getting their legs ripped off and such, but I never seen anything like them.”
These days, Kalinowski keeps a loaded 30-30 rifle behind the seat of his tractor. Since 2002, when the boars first appeared on his land, he and his son and son-in-law have killed about a half dozen of the wily animals.
These weren’t escaped farm pigs; they were hogs with razor-sharp tusks and bristling, hairy backsides. They spread diseases, destroy crop fields and one time so completely devoured a deer only a bloodstain was left on the ground.
Experts say the animals are spreading through the country at an alarming rate. In fact, they’re becoming such a serious problem that the state Game Commission wants people to shoot them on sight.
“We encourage folks to take them out because they don’t belong here,” said Tom Hardisky, a biologist with the commission in Dallas.
Hardisky has a thick file folder of feral hog sightings in Northeast Pennsylvania. The first reported sighting was in 1995, but for years after that no one reported seeing the animals. Then, in 2002, a pack of 42 hogs was spotted in Preston Township, Wayne County. The last sighting of that group was in June 2005.
“They group together as a safety tactic. If 50 escape from a farm or a hunting preserve, they’ll all stick together in the wild,” he said. “That group of 42 has probably thinned out by now, but it’s also possible their numbers could grow in the wild.”
Local wildlife experts, farmers and hunters have different theories about why the animals have been turning up. Some say wild boars were brought in for sport hunting from Georgia and South Carolina and escaped from game preserves in Tioga County. Others say domestic pigs escaped from local farms and turned feral. Still others say the two types of swine are breeding in the wilds of Wyoming County.
What’s certain is that Northeastern Pennsylvania, like many other parts of the country, has a growing feral hog population.
Hardisky has records of hog sightings that include a pack of 12 in Wyoming County in 2003 and another in 2004 that was killed and tested for various swine viruses. It was clean. Another group was seen in Penn Forest Township in Carbon County in 2004. One of those hogs was also killed and tested negative for viruses.
Hardisky says he tests every wild hog he can for two diseases lethal to domestic livestock—brucellosis and pseudo-rabies.
But the real problem with the hogs, according to both Hardisky and Kalinowski, is what they do to the land. “The biggest concern is habitat damage,” Hardisky said. “They can root up entire crop fields and destroy woodlands.”
“I never seen anything like it”
Kalinowski’s 300-acre farm sweeps up the side of Osterhout Mountain near Tunkhannock, where cattle graze between crop fields and a thick forest lines the ridge.
The imposing, field-hardened farmer has lived on the land his entire life, planting crops and raising livestock. Over the last four years, he has unwittingly become something of a folk expert on wild hogs, battling them since the winter of 2002 when he first spotted signs of the animals tearing up his land.
Kalinowski first spotted a pair of hogs with a spotlight one night in the fields, and after that he started seeing them all the time. One fall evening during the 2002 deer season, his neighbors told him there was a line of about 30 boars on the side of the mountain, snout to tail, trekking across his fields. He ran to get his rifle but the hogs made it to the woods before he could get a shot off.
Nobody believed him at first.
People said he was seeing bears, not boars. But after pressing the Game Commission, Kalinowski says an official told him an archery camp had brought a truckload of boars in from Georgia and they somehow got loose. Gradually, he started hearing rumors that other folks in the area were seeing hogs in the hills, too.
Before long, word spread that Kalinowski had wild boars on his land and hunters started offering him $1,500 for the chance to find and kill one. But he declined the offers and set about trying to kill the animals on his own.
Kalinowski and his family have only managed to kill seven or eight boars out of the dozens they’ve spotted on the land in the past four years. He reckons one set of tracks he found must have belonged to a 500-pounder.
“Back in 2004 we tracked a big one across the mountain. It made tracks in the snow a foot-and-a-half wide,” Kalinowski said. “And he knew he was being tracked. He circled back around trying to shake us. That thing was smart—I never seen anything like it.”
An accomplished hunter, Kalinowski talks about the boars with a kind of awe. During deer season in 2004, he said his son-in-law shot a deer on the mountain but didn’t have a knife to dress the animal. He left it there overnight and when he came back the next day it was gone, “no bones, nothing. They ate the whole thing. There was just some blood on the ground.”
And there was the hog den he says he found in the woods. “A sow had snapped off two-inch thick green saplings to make that den. Just snapped them right off.”
Kalinowski has heard boar stories from people all over the Tunkhannock area in recent years. He said William Host, his former neighbor on the other side of the mountain, was rushed by six adult boars last spring and got away only after unloading a rifle at them. “I don’t go out in the fields without a gun now.”
Of the boars they did kill, Kalinowski says the biggest one was about 350 pounds with 4-inch tusks, and when his nephew shot it from 30 yards with a 25-06 Remington, “the bullet didn’t even go all the way through.”
The last boar shot by the Kalinowski clan was in December 2005. He thinks the hogs have since moved on. “Whatever they were looking for, tearing up my crops and fields, they must have stopped finding it.”
“Everyone thinks we shot them all, but we didn’t, they just moved,” he said. “And I know they’re breeding. Even in the winter, I’d see big footprints and right next to them I’d see little ones.”
From farm pig to feral hog
“These hogs are smart, especially if they’ve been pursued,” state biologist Hardisky said. “They learn what to do and what not to do. When one of their buddies gets killed, they remember it and adapt.”
In the case of domestic swine escaping from farms, Hardisky said their domestication quickly reverts and they become wild. Over time, as they breed, their bodies change. They grow tusks and long, coarse hair; their snout lengthens and their front legs get stronger.
Although most feral hogs will run from the sight or smell of humans, Hardisky said some can become more aggressive and territorial in the wild. “I’m not sure where the aggressiveness comes from. I guess they become as wild as they need to be to survive.”
Joe Corn, a biologist with the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study, said according to one study it took about a dozen generations for escaped domestic pigs to revert completely into wild boars. Since the animals start breeding at 6 months and have about four litters a year, the process of becoming feral doesn’t take long.
But most feral hogs in Northeastern Pennsylvania are not farm escapees but wild boars brought up from the south for sport hunting, according to Hardisky. Since these animals were wild to begin with, they have no trouble surviving in the dense woodlands of Pennsylvania.
Whether farm pigs turned wild or wild boars turned loose, the result is the same: An animal that can survive in almost any environment, breed profusely and has few natural predators.
Among those who have had dealings with wild hogs, there is a kind of respect and lore associated with the animals. Kalinowski claims the eyes of a wild boar don’t shine, that “it’s easier to see a skunk at night.” He also says the hogs on his land “can’t be compared to pigs down south; these ones were different.” For years he tried unsuccessfully to lure them into traps, but never knew what exactly they were looking for.
“One time they ate two acres of planted corn, dug up my field so bad you couldn’t drive a tractor over it. Next I day I went back and planted cheap corn and waited for them, but they never came back,” he said. “These were smart pigs; they never touched any bait we set for them.”
“We could never figure out why.”