Feral swine. (Image via USDA)

The frequently asked questions page on the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries’ website says it best.

“Feral hogs are four-legged ecological disasters.”

Earlier this week the “30-50 feral hogs” meme swarmed the internet, an unexpected by-product of the nationwide gun debate.

But in many parts of the country, including Virginia, feral hogs have posed a huge threat to natural habitats and endangered plants and animals, according to DGIF. They multiply fast, have few  or no natural predators aside from humans and, once established, are nearly impossible to eradicate.

Starting in the 1980s, the population of feral hogs exploded in the southeastern U.S. — a phenomenon wildlife experts deemed “the pig bomb.” The USDA estimates there are over 6 million pigs in 35 states.

Feral hogs are considered a nuisance species in Virginia state code. Not only are they destructive to their environment, including agriculture, they carry diseases that can spread to livestock or humans, such as swine brucellosis or tularemia, also known as rabbit fever. Plus, they’re smart and often evade traps.

In Virginia, DGIF, the United State Department of Agriculture and animal control agencies started getting reports of populations of hogs popping up in the state around 2010, according to Aaron Proctor, a policy analyst and wildlife biologist with DGIF.

“There were groups of loose wild hogs in areas where we know there weren’t wild hogs before, and they were always there under suspicious pretenses,” Proctor said. “They were either more feral-looking colors — which means longer, more coarse hair than your typical pink colored, barnyard pigs — or they were shy of humans. But these things don’t pick up from North or South Carolina and walk dozens or hundreds of miles north overnight.”

Nobody knew where the hogs were coming from, which suggested they were getting human help. They were so numerous in some eastern parts of the state that helicopters were called in to take out some of the wily critters.

“We have to suspect that there have been and currently are people moving feral hogs to new areas where feral hogs didn’t exist previously and releasing them for sporting (hunting) purposes,” DGIF says.

With the ultimate goal of freeing the Virginia landscape of the feral hog, DGIF started a campaign working with USDA to nab hogs in the field and remove them. But they also worked to educate and dissuade people from bringing them in for hunting in the first place.

Unlike deer and bear populations, hunting isn’t an effective way to control feral hogs.

“All you do is create more hog hunting and incentivize those who want to bring them in,” Proctor explained. “Which is illegal.”

The public education campaign was successful, and people started calling in sightings of hogs to have them removed, he said. Now, the USDA Wildlife Services division has largely taken over the effort to root out all the pigs. Between 2017 and 2018, fewer Virginia counties were plagued with feral hogs, according to the USDA.

That’s good news for the state, because feral hog populations can balloon fast. One conservationist told the Washington Post in 2013 that, if pigs build a strong presence in the state, they would be as numerous and common in suburban settings as deer — or more so.