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Wild Swine, the DNR and a Solution

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The effort by Michigan authorities to eradicate feral swine from the state has exploded in controversy and drawn national media attention in recent weeks, but an MLUI analysis shows much of the dust-up could seemingly be diffused by looking at how other states deal with the environmental menace that is the wild boar.

Photo Courtesy NY State Department of Environmental Conservation

In Michigan, the state’s 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.

So, given all the controversy and media attention, we at MLUI decided to take a closer look. What we found is that there is a deeper story here: namely that the Michigan Legislature failed the public on this matter. Partisan bickering 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 the Legislature.

We also found that there is a pathway to peace in the Michigan pig fight that protects both the farmer and our natural resources. In at least two other states, Oregon and Wisconsin, there are strict feral swine rules in place, but both states also 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 (rules) 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.”

“A Pickup Load of Pigs”

The reason hunting ranches and a select group of farmers in Michigan now find themselves subject to DNR enforcement is due to the acute threat feral swine pose to an agricultural and tourism-heavy state like Michigan. 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. The numbers are both staggering and frightening when you consider two of Michigan’s most important industries, 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.

Perhaps the best examination of the threat feral swine pose can be found in the short documentary “Pickup Load of Pigs.”

Mr. Mayer is considered 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?” Mr. 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 the Wildlife Conservancy has been training volunteer trappers to catch wild hogs in the state. 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 very, very 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.

Photo Courtesy NY State Department of Environmental Conservation

“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, according to Mr. Fijalkowski, dates back long before the DNR’s enforcement action on the state’s invasive species order. Mr. 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 2006, DNR Director Rebecca Humphries was expressing her concerns about feral swine publicly, as were other DNR leaders.

Still, the Legislature turned away from demands from environmental and agricultural groups to outlaw the hunting of swine in Michigan.

Amy Trotter of the Michigan United Conservation Clubs said in April 2007, the Michigan Natural Resources Commission and the Michigan Commission of Agricultural issued a joint resolution calling for depopulation. The resolution called for elimination of the swine from hunting ranches and breeding facilities.

In July 2008, legislative bills HB 6338 and 6339 were introduced. The first allowed for feral swine to be shot on site and the second prohibited transporting these animals for the purposes of confined shooting operations. The first bill was defeated in the Michigan Senate. The second bill never made it out of a House committee.

On September 21, 2009, legislation passed that granted the Natural Resources and Agriculture commissions authority to add and delete from the prohibited species list. In May 2010, swine running at large were declared a public nuisance and hunters were allowed to shoot feral swine on site.

On August 12, 2010, the DNR proposed an invasive species order to prohibited the possession of wild hogs. A week later three bills were introduced in the Legislature that attempted to regulate the sporting swine industry. The bills never made it out of committee.

DNR Director Rebecca Humphries issues 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.

Ms. Trotter said the DNR was willing to delay and eventually rescind the order if the Legislature offered its own guidance on what to do about feral swine. Minutes from a December 2010 Natural Resources Commission meeting shows the DNR seemed to be looking for direction from the Legislature.

“That gives the Legislature time to enact the regulations….The order is being kept in place so that if the Legislature fails to act, the order will go into effect that day. If the Legislature does act and adequately does address the issue, the new director will need to rescind the order and look at ways to modify it.”

But the Legislature never acted.

The Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development formed the feral swine working group to come up with solutions. The feral swine working group was frustrating, Mr. Fijalkowski said, because it was apparent to him the hunting ranches wanted to face no regulation. The findings of the working group were presented to both the DNR and the Department of Agriculture, but a string of proposed legislative actions followed and went nowhere.

Reps. Ed McBroom and Sharon Tyler, introduced legislation as well known as the Sporting Swine Marketing Act.” This legislation, according to Mr. McBroom’s website, would make sporting swine part of Michigan’s livestock industry, and requiring gaming operations to register their animals. The legislation also established fencing, testing, tagging, and record keeping requirements, as well as developing penalties for accidental or deliberate release of swine.

“We understand the concerns about feral swine, but there is a critical distinction between the two,” said McBroom. “Sporting swine are maintained inside a fence, and feral swine are not. Along those lines, we have developed strict but reasonable regulations for businesses that offer sporting swine hunting in Michigan to keep the animals contained in livestock operations.”

“Every attempt to legislatively regulate this industry has died,” Ms. Trotter said.

Feral Swine and Farm Pigs

Critics of Michigan’s invasive species order for feral swine say the document is so generic that it makes no sense to them. It outlaws physical characteristics of Eurasian Boar, which critics say is such a generic description that they could apply to multiple types of pigs. Perhaps more importantly, the invasive species order makes no such 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, they say, 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.

Mr. O’Leary, of Baraga in the Upper Peninsula, said he will seek to have the state’s invasive species order on feral swine overturned in court because he believes it’s unconstitutional. The invasive species 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 this very issue of 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 Mr. Fijalkowski. “They are escape artists. They dig under and bite thru. You can’t confine these animals.”

The contention that hogs with Eurasian Boar characteristics can’t be contained is one put forward by many supporters of the invasive species order, but this is in dispute. Dave Tuxbury operates the Deer Tracks Ranch in Fife Lake. He has 1,600 acres in Kalkaska County, much of it running along the Manistee River, and the ranch is fenced off to hold in the wild game. He offers hunters the opportunity to pay money to hunt whitetail buck, elk, bison and hog, and he’s gone to great lengths, and expense, to make sure the animals on his ranch don’t get out.

“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,” Mr. Tuxbury said.

Mr. Tuxbury, until late March, had about 200 crossbred hogs on his property. He described the hogs as heritage pigs – a blend of Duroc and a longer-haired hog he bought from a breeder/farmer in the Upper Peninsula.

“A longer hair version…they withstand the weather a little bit better, and that was my breeding stock and it created a tremendously good stock,” Mr. Tuxbury said, adding “my clients like the flavor of my hog better than the concrete-raised animals of the pork association.”

But with the DNR investigating whether the type of hogs coming out of the U.P. were illegal under the state’s invasive species order, Mr. Tuxbury said he had no choice but to slaughter the hogs.  Mr. Tuxbury said he slaughtered all the hogs to avoid a possible felony charge and to presumably fall into compliance with the state invasive species regulation even though he disagrees with the order and finds it unnecessary. He’s now worried about going out of business due to the loss of revenue.

“I did a mass slaughter,” Mr. Tuxbury said.

“I had to start picking on all of the sows that were pregnant, and some had dropped their young before the trigger was pulled,” Mr. Tuxbury said. “We had to go in there and shoot the mom and piglets and of course the piglets are running around and it was totally totally sickening….I think we shot almost 80 of them in the last few days. I feel absolutely terrible. I’m still bothered to think about it.”

The DNR eventually inspected Tuxbury’s ranch after he demanded they get a warrant to get on the property. And, in one of the many complexities found in this story, Mr. Tuxbury runs a hunting ranch, yet he considers himself both a farmer and businessman. Mr. Tuxbury bred and raised the pigs himself in quarter acre pens. His property is zoned agricultural. After the pig he raised is hunted, the pig is butchered and the hunter takes the meat home to eat it, meaning the hog was raised not only for sport but also for consumption.

Some hunting ranches like Mr. Tuxbury’s across the state are in conflict with the DNR as well. Ronald McKendrick, owner of the Renegade Ranch in Cheboygan County, was in court a week ago to answer to a DNR complaint seeking to inspect his property for swine that might fall under the parameters of the state’s invasive species order. After hearing about Mr. 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, another man, Roger Turunen, is in court right now, fighting with the DNR as well. According to the Mining Gazette newspaper of Houghton, Mr. Turunen has a $5 million operation and 500 hogs. He raises what he describes as an old-world pig known as a “Hogan Hog.” The paper reports that Mr. Turunen faces a potential felony for the new state rules regarding feral swine, and that some 34 other ranchers and farmers have sought clarification on what is allowed and what isn’t.

A video of Mr. Turunen’s situation was reported on by U.P. television station TV 6.

“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.”

Confusion and a Possible Solution

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. Mr. 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,” Mr. Baker wrote. “We are conscientious, capable, and responsible people who do not allow our animals to escape and be unaccounted for.”

Mr. 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,” Mr. Hines said. “It’s utter nonsense.”

What is clear is that farmers were confused by the invasive species order and enforcement. The popular Mangalitsa pure bred hogs are exempt from the order, but the director of an association of those hog bloodlines said many breeders were also perplexed.

Hines sees the solution as a simple: you can’t have a Eurasian swine based, crossbred pig in Michigan anymore. The small number of farmers who might find themselves in possession of illegal swine, he said, need to use a different breed other than the Eurasian boar-based, and that would be a very simple transition. But here is where a huge chunk of the conflict lies: the idea of telling rural Michigan farmers what kind of pigs they can raise, and which ones they can’t, probably won’t go over well in some circles.

Some advocates of the direct farm to consumer connection feel strongly that those farmers should be allowed to raise what they want. They also see the story as one of big agriculture telling small farmers what they can raise for food.

“We are concerned when we hear that 10 other states are looking at what Michigan is doing and may follow suit,” said Kimberly Hartke of the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund, and who is watching the story unfold from Virginia.

In Oregon and Wisconsin, a solution can be found. The state Legislatures there were aggressive on feral swine, outlawing the hunt of boar.

While Michigan so far has been unwilling to take this step, it can find in Oregon and Wisconsin another aspect of feral swine enforcement that can be imported to Michigan. 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.”

We checked with Michigan authorities and, so far, they are not entertaining such an exemption.

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