JEFFERSON CITY — Government officials have taken a lot of heat of late for the way they’ve dealt with Missouri’s feral hog problem.
After the U.S. Forest Service banned hunting pigs in Mark Twain National Forest in December, at the request of Missouri’s Department of Conservation, dozens came to the capital to protest. Others flagrantly ignored the ban. And lawmakers skeptical of the government’s plan to trap and kill the destructive pigs on public lands without help from hunters filed bills threatening MDC’s funding.
That didn’t change the message from outside experts MDC invited to speak to lawmakers Wednesday morning, though some lawmakers weren’t happy about it.
When Mike Bodenchuk, who oversees efforts to eliminate the destructive pigs in Texas, took the microphone, he didn’t mince words: "You can’t hunt your way out of this problem."
Bodenchuk said he knows that because Texas tried it. State officials there allowed private citizens to hunt, which he said encouraged an industry to bloom with an export market to boot, and the hog population exploded.
Government efforts kill tens of thousands of hogs each year, he said, but millions still roam the state wreaking havoc on crops, spreading diseases and killing young livestock and sea turtles. They caused $89 million in damage to the state’s six main crops alone last year, he said.
"Allowing people to hunt them, putting a meat market in there and not regulating the movement of pigs allowed us to go from a few thousand pigs to 2.6 million to 3 million pigs," Bodenchuk said. "Our experience is that’s a train wreck."
Dale Nolte, who oversees federal efforts to deal with feral swine across the country, said the prognosis is better in Missouri, where hog hunting is banned on MDC lands and Mark Twain National Forest.
He conceded Missouri likely wouldn’t be free of the beasts for more than a decade.
Currently, they occur in more than 30 counties and number in the tens of thousands, according to government data.
But Nolte said joint state-federal efforts, which have included trapping hogs on public and private land as well as helicopter hunts, are "moving in the right direction to significantly reduce problems and in the long run, eradicate feral swine."
At least a couple of lawmakers weren’t sure about that after the hearing, though.
Despite Bodenchuk and Nolte testifying that trapping alone had eradicated entire populations in areas of other states, including Georgia and California, Rep. Scott Cupps, R-Shell Knob, wasn’t convinced.
He said he would know because it doesn’t work on his farm in Barry County.
"These hogs become trap shy after two or three hits of the trap," he said, "and the only way to clean up the remaining pigs is to seek them out and shoot them."
Rep. Chris Dinkins, R-Annapolis, said the same concept applied to her rugged region in southeastern Missouri.
"We need to be using every method possible," she said. "In our neck of the woods, there’s a lot of rugged terrain where you are not going to get traps. The only way to get in is dogs."
Cupps also said the MDC needs to stop insulting residents.
In the hearing, he complained specifically about a recent MDC news release in which an official says Missouri’s feral hogs were intentionally released into the wild by people looking to create hunting opportunities.
Cupps dismissed the research underlying the claim and said the statement promoted "a false narrative" about hunters hurting eradication efforts at a time when he thinks government officials need their help.
"They need to work with citizens in a cooperative fashion," he said, "not saying ‘Our team's going to come in and we don't want anyone who hunts them to hinder that,' because the reality is that's not valid."
Dinkins had similar thoughts.
She said residents don’t like feeling accused of wrongdoing when they’re trying to help, and suggested the department could make more progress by allowing hunting on public land where few pigs remain.
"When they've got all that they can trap in this area, why don't they call up their hog hunters and say 'Hey, they're not coming to the traps anymore, why don't you bring your dogs in and help us out," she asked.
Dinkins said she feels like MDC is trying to listen to new ideas now after years of ignoring them, but doesn’t appear ready to trust the department will stay the course.
She’s filed resolutions asking voters to cut the money MDC gets from a 1/8 cent sales tax by a third and remake its governing commission to allow each of MDC’s eight regional districts to elect its own member. The governor, who currently appoints all four members, would only appoint one at-large member under Dinkins’ plan.
She said the current setup allows the MDC to effectively set its own budget without assured representation from rural areas.
"This would bring back some accountability," she said.
Neither resolution had been referred to a committee for a hearing as of Wednesday afternoon.
Austin Huguelet is the News-Leader's politics reporter. Got something he should know? Call him at 417-403-8096 or email him at email@example.com.