Proposed Pa. regulations would hold game preserves accountable for invasive wild boars

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Several miles outside of Clarion a small drift of Urasian and Russian boars run over the wooded hills and ravines of a 180-acre game preserve. Buster Snyder, owner of the Double Boar Ranch, said each of his pigs is blood tested and ear tagged, fed organic meal and safely contained within a 10,000-volt fence that is inspected daily.

On Jan. 17 Snyder paid $460 each for 16 new boars, raising his inventory to 23. A hunt on the Double Boar preserve starts at $795. He said it's a small but steady profit for a businessman who returned to Pennsylvania in 2011 and purchased an operation he hoped would support his family and allow him to work close to the land.

That could change if the state Game Commission approves, as expected, new regulations intended to eradicate invasive wild boars from the commonwealth. A vote is expected at the first quarterly meeting of 2013, which begins today.

Since 2008, when the state Supreme Court forced jurisdiction over wild boar control on the Game Commission, the agency's policy has had nothing to do with creating a quality hunt.

"It's eradication," said wildlife biologist Matt Lovallo. "It's an invasive species that doesn't belong here."

Hunters and trappers have been encouraged to kill the animals on sight with few controls. They must be properly licensed, use legal sporting arms and respect hunting hours and private property restrictions. Declared by the court to be "neither fur bearers nor game animals," wild pigs may be killed with no season or bag limit -- the Game Commission requires a harvest report and takes a blood sample and tonsil to test for disease.

But eradication isn't working. In fact, it hasn't worked in any U.S. state with a confirmed breeding population. During the past four years, some incidental kills have been recorded, and organized hunts -- sometimes using dogs -- have claimed some wild boars.

Internally, the Game Commission has debated whether to publish maps giving hunters updates on locations of active boar drifts. Occasionally the agency has issued executive orders to temporarily stop the hunting of wild swine in specific counties where agency personnel had ongoing baited-trap operations.

"The truth is, hunting isn't a very effective way to eradicate them," Lovallo said. "They're very smart. Most of the kills have been incidental, and shooting at them just spreads them out and makes it harder to get them. But in truth, we haven't been very successful at trapping them, either. We've caught a few, that's all."

The new regulations go directly to the point seen by the Game Commission as the root of the problem. If approved, effective July 1 it will be illegal for Snyder and other game farm operators to import boars into Pennsylvania. As of July 1, 2014, the proposal reads, it will be "unlawful to possess feral swine or wild boar of any description or other name within this Commonwealth."

"We're not stopping them out in the field," Lovallo said. "The intention is to stop them from ever entering the pen."

Pennsylvania is one of 25 states with a growing feral swine problem. Biologists, farmers and game preserve operators continue to debate the pigs' origin -- they're primarily escapees from high-fence commercial hunting operations, domestic pigs that escaped from farms and took on wild characteristics, or wild-born boars or boar-hog hybrids.

Omnivorous, opportunistic, destructive to property and dangerous to livestock, invasive feral swine in Pennsylvania can grow to 400 pounds and are capable of crashing through fences and rooting under them.

Often described as one of the most destructive invasive species in North America, some 4 million wild hogs (a U.S. Fish and Wildlife estimate) are responsible for more than $800 million in damage to farmlands, livestock, wildlife, parks and backyards annually.

Razorbacks are known to carry diseases that can be easily spread to wildlife and seriously threaten Pennsylvania's multi-million dollar pork industry.

Lovallo said the Game Commission doesn't have a solid Pennsylvania population estimate -- guesses from outsiders are in the 3,000 range. Wild swine have been documented in 10 counties, and in 2007, the state Department of Agriculture reported that breeding populations had been confirmed in Bedford, Bradford, Butler, Cambria and Indiana counties.

"No one has been killed by a wild boar in Pennsylvania, but the vast majority of hunters don't appreciate the risk of disease and impact on domestic pork production," Lovallo said. "The risks are real -- this is not us picking and choosing what hunters can and can not do."

But many exotic game farm operators feel the Game Commission is picking on them.

"They're taking some broad, sweeping actions that aren't necessarily backed up by the facts, and they're not taking into consideration people like me who saved up their whole lives to be in this industry," Snyder said. "This is a business, like any other. I can't afford to lose my inventory. I've never lost a single one. Why are the new regulations focused on inside my fence when the problem they say they have is outside?"

Snyder said he questions the severity of the wild boar problem. He said many game farm owners would welcome the licensing of their operations, with resources used to hire state inspectors to ensure fence security. Another option: a bounty on boars to encourage more hunting.

Snyder said he plans to press those points this week when he takes his complaints to the Game Commission board meeting in Harrisburg.



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