By MARTY RONEY | The Montgomery Advertiser

HAYNEVILLE, Ala. (AP) — On an inky black Saturday night Barry Estes uses a thermal scope to scan a sprawling soybean field for his quarry, which shows up as white hot blobs against the cooler blacks and grays of the background.

His group is armed with military-grade, semi-automatic rifles, fed by high-capacity magazines, topped with military-grade thermal scopes that allow hunters to “see” in the dark.

And it is a war of sorts, a battle against wild, or feral, pigs. These are not your stuttering, porcine cartoon characters. Descendants of domestic hogs that have escaped or wandered off, they are four-legged rooting, breeding, and eating machines. Their spread has become an ecological train wreck across the country.

“I hate pigs,” Estes whispers, as he turns the scope back to the bean field in north Lowndes County. Located along the Alabama River, the sod and bean fields are prime pig habitat.

Estes and his brother, Bart, own and operate Alabama Hog Control. The Prattville-based business takes hunters all over the state, looking for feral pigs. On this night his clients were George Harris and his son, Jeff, who came down from Hancock County, West Virginia, for a two-night hunt. The previous night the duo each got a boar while hunting in Wilcox County.

“We’ve hunted hogs before, but never at night,” George Harris said. “That’s why we came down here.”

“It’s a little different looking through the thermals,” Jeff Harris continued. “Once you get used to it, it’s amazing what you can see.”

It’s really not possible to calculate the damage feral pigs cause to the agriculture and timber industries nationwide. The United States Department of Agriculture estimates the tally at several billion dollars a year. And that doesn’t take into account the environmental damage. Hogs can and do eat anything, which means they become competitors with natural wildlife.

Their rooting and wallowing creates runoff, which pollutes water sources. Sows become sexually mature at six months. They then can have two litters of 10 to 15 piglets a year. Since there are no natural predators to keep them in check, you can see how a group of hogs can overrun a piece of property quickly.

It’s the sows, the breeders, that are keyed on during the night hunts. Hogs are more active at night. Unlike night vision devices that amplify available light, thermal scopes “see” by heat signatures. The hogs show up as white blobs.

Becca Estes, Barry’s wife, drives a blacked-out pickup through the fields, with Barry and the hunters in the back. Muted taps on the cab roof signal Becca to stop, or continue cruising. When pigs are spotted, the group gets out of the truck, gets upwind of the pigs and begins a stalk. Barry Estes likes to get within 75 yards before the shooting starts.

The company is welcomed by farmers and hunting clubs that need help eradicating the pigs.

The farmer who has these fields was planting his soybeans and called Barry to come down.

“He turned his tractor around on the first row he had planted, and there was a group of hogs following behind him rooting out the soybean seeds,” Becca Estes said.

The state conservation department has pulled out all the stops in an effort to manage the hogs. Two years ago the rules were changed to allow for shooting hogs at night with thermal or night-vision devices and hunting the hogs over bait. Permits are required for the night hunting and hunting over bait. Hogs can be hunted year-round.

Several companies have sprung up to handle the pig problem in Alabama, either through hunting or trapping the pigs. The Estes brothers started in 2013, and it wasn’t a cheap proposition. The thermal scopes run $4,500 to north of $14,000 each, depending on capability and model. Alabama Hog Control is licensed, insured and permitted by the conservation department.

It’s obvious that the wild-pig population can’t be controlled one bullet, or one barbecue, at a time. In 1982, there were wild pigs in just a few counties in 17 states, according to the USDA. In 2012, the numbers were estimated at more than 6 million animals in 38 states.

Trapping is key, said Chris Jaworowski, a wildlife biologist with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. He is the wild-pig specialist for the department.

“Not many people can afford the equipment Barry has,” Jaworowski said. “Trapping is the only way you can control hogs. We have had success in trapping entire sounders, or groups, of hogs. You work one area and form a doughnut hole, then expand that doughnut hole through trapping in a wider area.

“Hunting is important, because you keep pressure on the pigs. But trapping is the only current way we have of controlling hogs.”

And once an area is “trapped out” another group of hogs may move in during the following weeks or months. So keeping a lookout for re-population is important, he said.

About 80 percent of hogs have to be killed or captured each year, just to maintain current numbers, he said.

“So if you have 100 hogs on your place, you have to remove 80 hogs a year, just so you can have 100 hogs next year,” Jaworowski said. “That kind of puts things in perspective.”

Alabama Hog Control also sells and leases traps. The metal panels form a corral with a feeder inside. The pigs are trapped and then destroyed. The company will sell the traps, or put them up and manage them for landowners.

Biological efforts may be the deciding factor in the future. The Alabama Farmers Federation is working with Auburn University to come up with a species specific birth control formula. Once developed, the most efficient way of using the birth control is an oral application which can be put in baits for sows to consume.

The difficulty is breaking the genetic code so the formula only works on pigs. That way native wildlife like deer, won’t be affected.

Along with crop and ecological damage, wild pigs pose health risks as well.

Brucellosis is common in wild pigs. The bacteria presents itself as a disease of the reproductive organs in animals. It can be transmitted to people where symptoms include an undulating fever, anorexia, swelling of the heart and other internal organs and neurological symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.

Once diagnosed, the disease is treated with antibiotics, and the death rate in humans is less than 2 percent in all cases, the CDC site states. The most common way a person can come into contact with brucellosis is through the bodily fluids of an infected animal. Hunters or people handling the raw meat of wild hogs should wear impermeable gloves. And as with any pork, the meat of wild hogs should be cooked thoroughly.

Feral hogs can also carry pseudorabies, a viral disease that was eradicated in domestic swine herds in 2004, according to an Iowa State University report. The disease can spread to other animals, livestock and pets. There are no cases of pseudorabies reported to be found in humans.

Parasites feeding on the feral hogs, ticks, mites and fleas, can also spread other disease among livestock and pets, according to the USDA.

Barry Estes despises the swine scourge.

“They are not native to this country, and they do a tremendous amount of damage,” he said. “That’s why they need to be eradicated. The only difference between a baby feral pig and a 120-pound adult feral pig is about six months.

“I hate pigs.”

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Information from: Montgomery Advertiser, http://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com