Legislature dithers as DNR kill order raises hackles
The effort to eradicate feral swine in Michigan has exploded in controversy in recent weeks, but much of the dustup could seemingly be diffused by looking at how other states deal with the environmental menace that is the wild boar.
In Michigan, the Department of Natural Resources is carrying out the enforcement of an invasive species order to kill all feral swine with Eurasian boar characteristics. The order has been sharply criticized. The rules outlawing wild hogs in Michigan, as written, make no distinctions for farmers who raise Eurasian-boar type hogs for food on well-fenced farms.
Yet partisan bickering in the State Legislature and an unwillingness to adopt regulations for hunting ranches left the DNR in the difficult position of having to try and stop feral swine with no direction from lawmakers.
There is a pathway to peace in the Michigan pig fight, however, that protects both the farmer and our natural resources. At least two other states, Oregon and Wisconsin provide farmers an opportunity for an exemption for well-contained swine, like those found on farms.
“We have pot belly pigs that are feral crossbreeds, so our (rule) defines more by where the (pigs) are. If it’s not on a farm lot, then it’s feral,” said Rick Boatner, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s invasive species wildlife integrity coordinator. “There are a variety of definitions from state to state.”
Feral swine are the very definition of an invasive species – once they show up, you can’t get rid of them, and they cause nothing but problems. Last year, the damage toll was $1.5 billion in the United States. In Texas, they caused $400 million in damage annually. Both farming and tourism are vulnerable to the animal.
“They are one of the worst invasive species on the face of the earth,” said Jack Mayer, manager of environmental sciences at the federal government’s Savannah River National Lab.
Mayer is one of the nation’s foremost experts on feral swine, and Michigan, he said, is on the front lines of the fight against the animal. He said the primary source of feral swine are operations that offer hunts of the animal. Many of the hunting ranches are careful about keeping the animals in confined areas, but he said some are not, and it only takes a small number of the hogs to start an epidemic.
“Michigan has to decide, does it want to be a wild pig state?” Mayer said. “Does Michigan want to put up with the millions of dollars spent every year just to try and contain the damage?” Dennis Fijalkowski, executive director of the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy, said feral swine are already in Michigan and his organization has been training volunteers to trap them. One trapper in the Midland area trapped 25 wild swine.
“The feral pig problem in Michigan is at a stage where we need to get ahead of it,” said Keith Creagh, head of the Department of Agriculture. “Feral pigs are not good for large, medium or small farmers, they are not good for our natural resources, and they are not good for our citizens.”
The transmission of disease from feral pigs to domesticated hogs is the chief worry for farmers and ag associations. In Michigan, hog production is a big agri-business. The state has 2,100 pork producers and markets more than 2 million hogs per year. Agricultural associations like the Michigan Pork Producers Association said dealing with feral swine is critical to all Michigan residents.
“There are not many redeeming qualities of these critters, and if we become aggressive about dealing with this, we might be able to get it under control,” said Sam Hines, executive vice president of the Pork Producers Association. “If not, we are going to be in the same can of worms as Texas and these other states, and we will have to coexist with these animals.”
The efforts to deal with feral swine in Michigan date back long before the DNR’s enforcement action on the state’s invasive species order. Fijalkowski said at least 12 years ago he remembers a legislator from the Upper Peninsula floating the idea of banning feral swine because of sightings of the animals.
In September, 2009, new legislation granted the Natural Resources and Agriculture commissions the authority to add and delete from the state’s prohibited species list. In May 2010, swine running at large were declared a public nuisance and hunters were allowed to shoot feral swine on sight.
DNR Director Rebecca Humphries issued the invasive species order for swine in December 2010, but wildlife leaders in Michigan were still hopeful of guidance from the Legislature. That guidance never came.
The Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development formed the feral swine working group to come up with solutions. The group was frustrated, Fijalkowski said, because it was apparent to him the hunting ranches wanted no regulations. A string of proposed legislative actions followed and went nowhere.
“Every attempt to legislatively regulate this industry has died,” said Amy Trotter of the Michigan United Conservation Clubs.
FERAL SWINE & FARM PIGS
Critics of Michigan’s invasive species order for feral swine say the document is so generic that it makes no sense. It outlaws physical characteristics of Eurasian Boar, which critics say is such a generic description that they could apply to multiple types of pigs. The invasive species order also makes no distinction between enforcement against whether a certain hog is on hunting ranches, running wild in the woods, or penned in at the farm.
This amounts to a huge loophole in which farmers remain in conflict.
“It’s mighty big of the state to say they are not coming after the family farmer, but they certainly could if they wanted to,” said attorney Joseph O’Leary, who represents two farmers, two hunting ranches and one pet owner in conflicts with the DNR.
Until small farmers started crying out about the conflict, it appeared that state government was not intending to make any distinction regarding where potentially illegal hogs were found – in the woods or on the farm.
O’Leary, of Baraga in the Upper Peninsula, said he will seek to have the invasive species order overturned in court because he believes it’s unconstitutional. The order is so broad in its definition of an illegal pig, he said, that it impacts farmers whose hogs are domesticated, being raised for food, and well-contained on farm property.
“You can kill every pig that my clients own, and you will not have killed a single feral swine,” he said. “What makes a pig feral is when it escapes.”
At the heart of the conflict is whether the animals can be contained. Those who are advocating for a complete ban on feral swine say you just can’t do it.
“These hogs cannot be kept behind the fence,” said Fijalkowski. “They are escape artists. They dig under and bite through. You can’t confine these animals.”
The contention that hogs with Eurasian Boar characteristics can’t be contained is in dispute by game ranchers. Dave Tuxbury, who operates the Deer Tracks Ranch in Fife Lake, went to great expense to create an “escape-proof” enclosure for his hogs, prior to being ordered to put them down (see related story).
“For my fence, I trenched two foot down in the ground and put chain link fence in, then it went 10 foot high in the air,” Tuxbury said.
Ronald McKendrick, owner of the Renegade Ranch in Cheboygan County, was in court recently to answer to a DNR complaint seeking to inspect his property for feral swine. After hearing about McKendrick’s hogs and the state rules, Judge Donald McLennan said in McKendrick did not have to destroy his hogs for now, at least, but he can’t get any new ones.
In the Upper Peninsula, Roger Turunen is in court fighting with the DNR as well. According to the Mining Gazette newspaper of Houghton, Turunen has a $5 million operation and 500 hogs. He raises what he describes as an old-world pig known as a “Hogan Hog.” Turunen faces a potential felony for the new rules regarding feral swine, and is one of some 34 other ranchers and farmers who have sought clarification on what is allowed and what isn’t.
“It’s going to impact anyone who owns their own game range,” Dale Daniels, owner of the Buck Trail Ranch in Alanson, told the Petoskey News-Review. “It’s just like cutting somebody’s paycheck in half.”
Michigan farmer Mark Baker raises hogs that apparently are in conflict with the state’s invasive species order. He has been one of the most vocal critics of the government regulation, but no one was listening to him until after the enforcement action started taking place. Baker wrote on one blog that his farm, Baker’s Green Acres, does not sell hogs to hunting preserves.
“Our hogs are nicely maintained on our farm until they go to the USDA slaughter facility for processing and finally end up in someone’s kitchen for food,” Baker wrote. “We are conscientious, capable, and responsible people who do not allow our animals to escape and be unaccounted for.”
Hines of the Pork Producers Association said there are approximately 1,500 pig farmers in Michigan who have less than 100 hogs. He said opponents of the ban, namely hunting ranches, are trying to make it an issue of big farmers versus little farmers to muddy the issue and avoid enforcement of the ban.
“Unfortunately some of the champions of these hunting ranches in the Legislature, for whatever reason, I don’t know why, have embarked on a smear campaign directed at Michigan pork producers, saying this is big agriculture conspiring with the DNR to put the small hog farmer out of business,” Hines said. “It’s utter nonsense.”
What is clear is that farmers were confused by the invasive species order and enforcement.
In Oregon and Wisconsin, a solution can be found. The state legislatures there were aggressive on feral swine, outlawing the hunt of boar.
But Oregon and Wisconsin offer exemptions for animals raised and contained on a farm. The specific definition in Oregon for a feral swine is a pig that is free roaming on public or private lands and not being held under domestic management confinement. The swine also do not appear to be domesticated and are not tame.
Wisconsin offers similar definitions and a chance for an exemption for farmers who raise Eurasian-style hogs for food.
“We do have an exemption because we have a couple of farms that raise them for meat,” said Brad Koele of the Wisconsin DNR. “There is a permitting process for them.”
Michigan authorities, so far, are not entertaining such an exemption.
Glenn Puit is a reporter with the Michigan Land Use Institute. This is an edited version of a longer story on the feral hog issue which is available on their website at www.mlui.org