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Unleashing a New Tool to Stop an Unexpected Invader

Posted by Jeanine Neskey, APHIS Feral Swine Program, and Pam Manns, APHIS Public Affairs in Animals
Aug 04, 2021
Canine handlers and a training specialist with APHIS detector dogs
Canine handlers Lisa Buhr (left) and Marnie Pepper (right) stand with training specialist James Mason (center) and the two APHIS detector dogs that traveled to California to detect feral swine.

The National Feral Swine Damage Management Program, within the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s Wildlife Services (WS) program, has unleashed detector dogs as a new tool to help stop the spread of feral swine, one of the United States’ most destructive and ravenous invasive creatures.

WS first used detector dogs in 2013, to successfully sniff out the scat or droppings of invasive Nutria on Maryland’s Lower Eastern Shore as part of the Chesapeake Bay Nutria Eradication Program (CBNEP), a multifaceted effort to rid the area of the damaging animal. Applying the same training techniques, the dog handlers from the Nutria program were able to cross train the canines to locate and detect feral swine scat. WS field staff from across the country sent in samples of feral swine scat so the dogs could be trained to detect it.

Recently, two dogs, along with their handlers, had the opportunity to put this new training into action when they were flown to the San Diego area. Experts believed feral swine were eradicated in the area, but needed to dogs’ help to help prove the animal’s absence.

“The dogs did not have any confirmed detections,” said Marnie Pepper, a certified biologist and WS project leader for the Chesapeake Bay Nutria Eradication Project/Nutria Detector Dog Program. “One dog, Keeva, did respond and that sample was collected. But the DNA was so compromised that they could not come back with a clear yes or no about the identity of the animal.”

This is a new tool, and WS will continue to train the dogs and use them to detect nutria, feral swine, and possibly other invasive species, in the future.

“It’s hard to prove that an animal isn’t in an area,” said Dr. Dale Nolte, head of the National Feral Swine Damage Management Team. “The detector dogs give us that confidence so we can say they are gone and focus on other areas that are still experiencing damage.”

Feral swine, decedents of released or escaped domestic pigs, have taken hold in North America, and their range has expanded over the last few decades because they are highly adaptable, lack natural predators and have been translocated to new areas by people. Damage management operations vary depending on the location and type of damage.

Feral swine are a risk to human and domestic animal health, harm threatened and endangered species, hurt native wildlife and natural resources, uproot crops, damage yards, ruin golf courses, threaten water quality, and are generally considered the worst invasive species on earth. A group of feral swine can overturn acres of land in a single night, rooting with their snouts and tusks. They eat anything they can find, including salamanders, insects, frogs, and the eggs of ground nesting birds, reptiles, and amphibians. Additionally, they are prolific breeders, with more than an estimated 6 million feral swine in at least 35 states, inflicting about $1.5 billion dollars in damage each year.

The USDA is working across the country to assess, control, and prevent feral swine damage. Dogs are just one of the many tools the USDA is using to stop feral swine, but if you see feral swine or their damage on your property contact USDA for assistance. To learn more about feral swine, call 1-866-4-USDA-WS or read about them on the APHIS website.

Category/Topic: Animals

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Larry Garvin
Jul 10, 2017

That's about the most absurd notion I've heard as to controlling feral hogs ! Does the USDA not have a real solution on the drawing board ? How about poison ?

Walter Harbuck
Jul 10, 2017

Do not bring your pooch to Trinity County, Texas unless your tennis ball handler is carrying a side arm. I hope my tax dollars are not going into a program to tell me that I "don't" have feral hogs. Come look at my pastures and I'll show you that we do. Lets put our tax dollars into eradication instead of playing tennis ball with your pet.

Walter Harbuck
Apple Springs, Texas

Jul 11, 2017

I have spend thousands upon thousands of dollars over the past fifteen years on repairing damaged pastures and even more in lost hay production (having to go out and purchase more hay) and lost pasture grazing for my cattle. Feral hogs are our worst nightmares here in East Texas. The USDA has not helped us in the effort to rid the feral hog problem. Now, I see the USDA is simply continuing to waste our tax dollars. Hopefully, our new USDA Secretary, Sonny Perdue, will do a better job of managing our tax dollars than others before him in the past fifteen years of struggle with feral hogs.

Jo Ann Sette
Jul 12, 2017

I have witnessed firsthand extensive milo crop damage caused by feral swine in Texas. Why would you need a dog to find the scat of the hogs when all you would have to do is note their destruction wherever they exist? A waste of money and time. Put those dogs to work where they can do more good with their highly trained noses. And use the funds to transport the dogs and crew across the country to help hire much needed staff or tools to help actually eradicate the problem.

Andy Stahl
Jul 18, 2017

In the 2015-2016 hunting year, feral swine were hunted successfully in 41 of California's 58 counties, including San Diego County (5 pigs killed). About 4,000 pigs were harvested throughout the state. If the dogs didn't find pigs in the "San Diego area" during their last visit, just wait a year or so -- they'll be back.

Ben Weaver
Jul 20, 2017

To readers: Thanks for reading, and for the comments.  To be clear, detector dogs are just one tool that APHIS uses in specific situations (in areas with small, isolated populations of feral swine) to confirm the success of eradication efforts, in turn allowing resources, such as personnel and equipment, to be shifted to other areas where they are needed.  Along with detector dogs for feral swine damage management, other tools include aerial operations and trapping.  Feral swine are able to quickly establish populations, so it is important to eliminate isolated populations quickly before they have the opportunity to grow.

As the commenters make clear, feral swine are an invasive species across the United States. New tools for feral swine population monitoring and management are continually being researched and developed.  For more information on controlling feral swine populations, please visit the APHIS website.

Perry Hamilton
Jul 22, 2017

I was a wild hog hunter in Florida for several years using dogs to track. Allow people to hunt with dogs and use the meat to feed the hungry. Pay a bounty for every hog, you will see results.

Gretchen Cervantez
Mar 27, 2019

Detector Dogs and handlers Definitely a waste of tax payer dollars. Why not hire real handlers with highly qualified dogs to do the job? What do you expect that handler and detector dog to do, when they really encounter a feral hog? I thought you scientists and biologists went to school to gain knowledge, not STUPIDITY!

Mar 27, 2019

Are these Labradors?? You're going to get them killed if they do happen to find real wild hogs. I've owned many labs, and have killed many wild hogs. They are no match for a wild hog, they lack the grit or agility that will be needed if they find one and will get gutted by the hogs cutters. Get a Catahoula or BMC's and some real handlers if you seriously want to deal with them.

Mar 29, 2019

The government is going to FAIL miserably at eradicating the feral hog unless they allow the hunters to help...and for goodness sake get some hog dogs would ya?...what are you planning to do with those bird dogs?

Jan 13, 2022

So who is responsible for turning all these feral pigs loose in the first place? Should those responsible be asked to pay for the damage they have caused?