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BURNET COUNTY — Trenton McNiel has trapped and hunted feral hogs across the area for two years and witnessed their destructiveness first hand.

“They can cause a lot of damage to people’s yard in subdivisions that border big ranches. They damage net wire fences. They absolutely destroy them, making big holes,” said McNiel, a Burnet County wildlife damage management technician with the Texas Wildlife Services Program.” They’re rooting up coastal fields, hay fields. There have been reports of damage to golf courses.”

The Texas AgriLife Extension Service estimates that feral hogs cause $52 million in damage to state agricultural enterprises each year. Wildlife experts believe the U.S. feral hog population could jump from 2.6 million to 10 million by 2019 if nothing changes.

The breed has flourished since its origins from domestic stock of wild boar brought by early Europeans, introduced for hunting and eventually interbreeding with domestic pigs and creating the hybrid feral hog, according to research. Feral hogs can reach a height of 36 inches at the shoulder and weigh 100 pounds to more than 400 pounds, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Despite open season year-round for private residents and a growing aerial gunning industry in Texas, feral hogs continue to proliferate.

To combat the problem, TPWD has launched a test program to potentially use a so-called “toxicant” of sodium nitrite in feeders to destroy the wild pigs.

Sodium nitrite is an inorganic compound typically used as a precursor to dyes and pesticides and is best known as a food additive to prevent botulism.

John Kinsey, a wildlife research biologist with TPWD, is among the scientists testing the substance on feral hogs at the Feral Swine Research Facility on the Kerr Wildlife Management Area.

“We are testing sodium nitrite and the efficacy of sodium nitrite as an oral toxicant for control of the feral swine population,” Kinsey said. “It reduces the ability for red blood cells to transport oxygen to tissues in the body. It induces hypoxia. Essentially, it suffocates from the inside out.”

Trials on feral hogs have indicated the substance absorbs into the system, causing the animal to die within about two hours.

The first phase of research also involves determining a potential delivery device such as a feeder accessible to feral hogs but difficult to access by other wildlife, Kinsey said.

“There’s been very little push back because of how widespread the issue with feral hogs is,” Kinsey said. “Everyone has a general understanding of the dangers associated with feral pigs, the economic ramifications.”

Officials say health problems also top concerns about an out-of-control feral hog population. Issues from viruses such as pseudorabies and influenza threaten livestock and pets, and swine brucellosis is believed to possibly infect hunters who dress and slaughter the wild pigs.

Austin Sierra Club member Peter Beck said prior to utilizing a proposed toxicant, he hopes researchers consider the potential impact on the environment.

“Sierra Club, in general, would prefer non-lethal means if possible. But it’s like with vegetation, when there’s invasive vegetation, to restore the ecosystem, you frequently want to remove invasive vegetation,” he said. “The general concern with any poisoning would be the secondary target; whatever happens to eat the bait itself or if the hog were to die and something were to eat the hog or even a person who might shoot a hog, maybe ate that.”

Other concerns include potential contamination of water resources, he said.

“I would hope they would really examine the secondary targets and also the potential for it leeching (into the water table) depending on how they’re going to use it,” Beck said. “How they’re going to bait the hogs in the first place.”

McNiel believes toxicants would help diminish the growing numbers of the feral hog population, which have high reproductive rates and no natural predators.

“We’ve killed several hundred hogs this year, all different methods, shootings. A sow can have two litters a year between five to a dozen piglets,” he said. “When you do the math, the population is going to explode.”

The trial and research on the toxicant is expected to continue for at least five more years, Kinsey said.

“Feral swine are not supposed to be here, historically. That’s something Texas Parks and Wildlife tries to combat on multiple levels. It’s always an ongoing battle,” he said. “There’s little chance that we will ever really eradicated feral hogs. They’re extremely prolific animals, high on the food chain. They’re extremely adaptable.”

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