By XERXES WILSON | The Courier

HOUMA, La. (AP) — It's the middle of the night when St. Charles sugar cane farmer Jim Gaubert receives a picture message on his iPhone.

A grainy, black-and-white image shows three wild hogs snorting away at a pile of corn, eyes gleaming in the camera flash against the black of night.

Not enough, he thinks, and goes back to sleep.

The next night, another set of images: six hogs. Still not enough.

After a few nights, Gaubert is satisfied the whole hog crew, known as a sounder, is feasting in front of his camera.

So he sends a text message and a steel gate slams behind the swine.

It's a trap. Now fenced in, this wildlife nuisance known equally for its destructive appetite and uncanny smarts can only wait for Gaubert to arrive with his rifle.

Around the country, the voracious appetites and growing populations of feral hogs are wreaking havoc on livestock, crops and wildlife as farmers and wildlife managers seek solutions.

“I've killed 101 since March,” said Gaubert, eyeing one of the photos sent each time his trap camera senses movement. “I got to put my phone on vibrate or it would keep me up all night.”

Gaubert said he waits until he has a good idea of how many pigs are in a sounder before springing the trap. Otherwise, the clever critters see their fellow swine enclosed and will never fall for the corn-baited ruse.

“You look at a pig and they look stupid and nasty, but they are not. They are smart and mean,” said Mike Hebert, Lafourche county agent for the LSU AgCenter. “They are more than just a nuisance. They are a problem.”

For farmers like Gaubert, that problem is money out of their pockets. Gaubert's trap is set in the middle of a cane field yards away from a recent hog feast.

Curiously, the hogs leave the outside row of cane untouched. Beyond that 8-foot wall of green is a mangled mess of half-eaten stalks and upturned mud. Sometimes clumps of white fiber spat back on the ground are all that's left of the sugar-rich bottom stalk.

“They are very smart. You can see where they go through and look for the sweetest cane they can find,” Gaubert said. “I've had whole blocks of cane just destroyed by them.”

Hebert said farmers along the bayou are struggling to deal with hogs.

Their damage isn't limited to crops. The hogs will eat anything, including other wildlife, such as fawns and alligator's and deer's eggs, and small birds. They also root for grubs and other morsels, causing erosion and damaging levees, said Rusty Berry, assistant state wildlife veterinarian with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

“Also the human health aspect. These hogs are not only destroying the environment, they are causing damage and a threat to our food supply, and just direct contact can give humans a serious illness,” Berry said.

State biologists estimate about 3.5 percent Louisiana's of wild hogs carry brucellosis. Should cattle catch it, transfer of cattle in and out of the state would be restricted. People who come in contact with hogs' bodily fluids could also catch that disease and others common in the pigs.

Berry said anyone slaughtering a wild hog should take extra precautions and be sure to cook the meat thoroughly.

“I don't fool with them,” Gaubert said with a laugh. “If I want pork, I go to the grocery store.”

Louisiana has an estimated 500,000 feral hogs. They reproduce quickly with a female hog capable of birthing two and a half litters on average each year. Those litters average six piglets, but can produce as many as 12, Berry said.

Just to keep numbers stable, about 75 percent of the population would have to be eliminated each year, Berry said.

This isn't the state's first fight with an invasive species. Bounties have kept nutria damage to wetlands more or less in check, but bounties on hogs would make things worse, Berry said.

“The No. 1 reason feral swine have spread is because of illegal transport,” Berry said. “If we were the only state to have a bounty on feral swine, what do you think would happen? The next thing you know we'd have hogs coming in from all over the place.”

Biologists have turned their efforts to other control methods like poisons.

LSU AgCenter animal science researcher Glen Gentry is working with sodium nitrite, which cuts blood's ability to carry oxygen.

He is testing different flavors that attract pigs.

“I like using gummy bears as a way to hide the salty and bitter taste of sodium nitrite,” Gentry said.

Gentry is studying the effective lethal dose, one that kills 90 percent of pigs that eat it, and how to make sure only hogs eat the stuff.

So far, Gentry is at 68 percent.

Meanwhile, state and federal wildlife officials have used aerial control: a sharpshooter hanging out the side of a helicopter killing groups of hogs with a rifle or shotgun.

Berry said this tactic has reduced damage on government-managed wildlife refuges, but more study is necessary to see if it could be cost-effective for private landowners. Regardless, a helicopter can't reach all hogs, as many are in wooded areas or under other natural cover. So the effort to reduce the population must be a collaboration between farmers, hunters and wildlife officials.

“It is going to take everybody, health departments, state, federal, private landowners, because it is a huge problem and no one entity is going to be able to tackle it,” Berry said.

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Information from: The Courier, www.houmatoday.com