Feds gun down hogs at Congaree National Park to stop pollution, natural resource damage

Federal sharpshooters recently ventured deep into Congaree National Park, looking to kill a type of voracious animal that threatens the preserve’s fragile, forested floodplain southeast of Columbia.

Wild hogs are marching across South Carolina as they look for food on the Palmetto State’s landscape. And they haven’t spared Congaree National Park, a swampy 27,000-acre woodland that is a cornerstone of South Carolina’s nature preserves.

So in the government’s latest attempt to control the hog population, parts of the park were closed in October to let federal wildlife officials hunt and kill as many hogs as they could find.

Ultimately, they gunned down 45 pigs, bringing to about 1,000 the number of porkers killed by federal agents at Congaree since 2015, according to the National Park Service.

During last month’s operation, a special team from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shot the feral pigs in several remote areas that had been “heavily hit by hogs,’’ said David Shelley, a Congaree National Park environmental official. A monitoring network study documented the damage hogs were inflicting on plants in those areas.

“This was shooting hogs in the backcountry while they were feeding in there,’’ Shelley said.

The National Park Service increased efforts to control hog populations at Congaree about seven years ago, getting the agriculture department’s animal control unit to increase its presence in the park. In the first year of the expanded program, more than 100 hogs were killed, the park service says.

Shelley said the annual numbers have been steady since then, with the peak year being 2017, when 241 hogs were taken out. Hogs are either hunted or shot in pens after they are trapped.

Whether the overall pig-killing program is putting a substantive dent in the hog population remains to be seen. Park managers in the past have expressed hope that the program is making a difference, but getting rid of hogs is not easy because swine reproduce relatively quickly.

Research has shown that up to 70 percent of the hogs in an area have to be destroyed to make a dent in populations. The park does not have what it considers a reliable population estimate, although the agency has said as many as 400 pigs could be in the park at any one time.

Wild hogs search for grubs at Congaree National Park in February of 2009.
Wild hogs search for grubs at Congaree National Park in February of 2009.

Hogs are the bane of natural resource managers because they root up forest floors, devouring anything in their path, ranging from salamanders to acorns and plants. These days, Congaree National Park is concerned that hogs are taking a particular toll on salamander and snake populations, Shelley said.

“Hogs are extremely impactful to the environment with their rooting behavior,’’ Shelley said. “If it has a calorie in it, and it fits in their mouths, they will eat it. Roots, nuts, seeds, snakes, turtles. Baby deer have shown up in hogs. Everything.’’

In addition to those issues, hogs that dig up the ground at Congaree are polluting the park’s tea-colored streams with sediment and waste that runs off the land, officials say.

Creek pollution traced to hogs

One recent study by a team of scientists, including Shelley, found that certain types of pollution in the park’s creeks most likely has come from feral hogs. The pollution couldn’t be from domestic hog farms since none are known in the area, the study said.

And bacteria from human waste associated with septic tanks and sewer systems also was a less likely source, the study indicated. The park is in an area of eastern Richland County with little development.

“Results of this study suggest that humans are an intermittent source of bacterial contamination and swine are primary contributors of fecal contamination’’ at the park, the study concluded.

The issue is of note because fecal bacteria pollution in water can carry disease that makes people sick. Many of the park’s visitors fish, kayak and swim in streams, such as Cedar Creek.

“Potential exposures to feral swine-contaminated water are increasingly common park management concerns,’’ the study said.

Many hogs are believed to walk into the park from adjoining private land. This time of year, they are attracted to the park as acorns fall to the ground, Shelley said.

Congaree, the state’s only national park, is known for its towering, old-growth trees, dark swamps and extensive floodplain. The national park is significant in many ways for the hundreds of native plant species that thrive there. In addition to huge hardwoods and pine trees, the park also features scores of shrubs, ferns, small palmettos and flowers.

Rare animals include the red-cockaded woodpecker, indigo snake and southern fox squirrel. The area where the park is located once was home to the ivory billed woodpecker, now believed to be extinct. The park, about 18 miles southeast of Columbia, attracts more than 100,000 visitors every year.

Because of its ecological significance, Congaree National Park has thousands of acres of federally designated wilderness. Wilderness areas are so significant that extra care is taken to protect their natural features.

Statewide, South Carolina has an estimated 150,000 feral hogs roaming the countryside in all 46 counties, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources has estimated.

Many of the animals are descendants of escaped pigs from Colonial times.. Others have been released to the landscape by sportsmen so they will have animals to hunt on large tracts, the DNR says.

Nationally, more than six million feral pigs are wandering the landscape in three dozen states, according to the federal Department of Agriculture.

In South Carolina, hog problems have been documented from places like North Island, on the northern coast, to the mountains of Oconee County. At North Island, hunters sanctioned by the DNR have had success knocking back the hog population that had threatened rare sea turtles.

Because hogs are considered a nuisance and not a game animal, they can be shot on private land anytime of the year in South Carolina.

Poison and helicopters

In addition to shooting hogs in pens or during special hunts, other methods of controlling the population are under consideration, including plans to poison the porkers. The poison under consideration is supposed to target pigs but is not expected to threaten other wildlife. Shelley said that is not yet available for use at Congaree National Park.

Another method of controlling hogs is the use of helicopters. Federal officials will shoot hogs from the air as they hover over open areas, such as marshes and farm fields. Government shooters have done some of that near Congaree National Park along the Congaree River, naturalist Dave Schuetrum said.

Schuetrum, who belongs to a hunt club near Congaree National Park, said the federal government needs to do as much as possible to keep the hog population down. His hunt club kills an estimated 400 hogs each year, but the animals still are roaming the landscape near the park.

“I think more needs to be done,’’ said Schuetrum, who heads the S.C. Association of Naturalists, a group dedicated to sharing information about the state’s natural history. “These hogs, they’re doing a lot of damage. You think about things like the salamanders, they’re eating all this stuff. They’re destroying all this native stuff that we have.’’

Shelley said the park service is trying. Realistically, the aim is to keep the populations of pigs and the damage they do under control, since it will be difficult to wipe out all feral pigs, he said.

“The goal is to manage the damage,’’ Shelley said. “Can we reduce hog (damage) to resources in sensitive areas, or around visitors or at sensitive times of the year? That’s really the goal.”

A Florida couple paddle upstream on Cedar Creek through Congaree National Park.
A Florida couple paddle upstream on Cedar Creek through Congaree National Park.