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Feds to test sodium nitrite poison in effort to root out feral hogs

By Loyd Brumfield • Jan 9, 2018 at 8:00 AM

Mike Taylor has no love for feral hogs. He shoots them regularly on his 30-acre property in Anderson County, Texas and sees drivers hit them all the time on Highway 287 in East Texas.

“I know they’re a huge problem, and I’m not sure what the answer is,” said Taylor, who is police chief in Italy, Texas.

Taylor is open to most options — but not one.

“I just don’t feel like poisoning is the way to do it,” he said.

Previous poisoning efforts have focused on warfarin, an anti-coagulant that causes massive hemorrhaging. It’s certainly lethal to pigs but also potentially dangerous to other animals or humans who come into contact with poisoned pig meat.

Now the federal government is embarking on a new pilot project to reduce hog populations — one that uses a kindler, gentler poison, officials say.

Field tests of bait laced with sodium nitrite — usually used to cure bacon and sausage — are scheduled to begin early this year in West Texas and in the summer in parts of Alabama. Expansion could follow if the tests are successful.

“It’s the nitrite that’s so lethal to the hogs,” said Nathan Snow, a research biologist with the National Wildlife Research Center in Fort Collins, Colo. “When it’s consumed, it’s quickly metabolized, and it’s particularly lethal to pigs because they have fewer enzymes to fight the sodium nitrite.”

That quick metabolism is also what will help save anything else that might come in contact with contaminated hogs, Snow said.

“By the time the pigs are dead, there really isn’t much left of this toxic bait except for some parts of the stomach and intestines — which people aren’t likely to consume,” he said.

Hunters who come across pigs that have consumed the bait probably won’t find them in any shape to hunt.

“The odds of a hunter coming across them alive and upright is very slim,” Snow said. “They’re more than likely to be already dead, and if they aren’t, they are probably going to be stumbling around in an obvious state of decline.”

Also, a live hog that has eaten a lethal dose of sodium nitrite and is shot while still alive will tend to have thick, chocolate-colored blood.

“You aren’t going to want to eat that,” Snow said.

An effective way of dealing with the hogs — which number about 1.5 million in Texas and cost an estimated $52 million in damage to state crops — has been elusive. Trapping and sport hunting have been somewhat effective in mitigating damage, but researchers say reducing population growth means eliminating at least 70 percent of the hogs each year.

An attempt to use warfarin — which causes a bloody, gruesome death — was abandoned in Texas last year because of its potential danger to other life.

The effort to get the pigs to consume the new bait involves training them for possibly several weeks by feeding them placebos at strategically placed traps.

The sodium nitrite baits are placed in capsules coated with a peanut-based substance to hide the distinct odor, then put in traps that are weighed down with magnets that are difficult to get into — unless you’re a pig that’s been trained to do it.

“The traps are designed to lure hogs and keep other animals away,” said Randy Smith, district supervisor for the Dallas-Fort Worth office of Texas Wildlife Services. “Pigs only need to eat a little bit of it to work, while other animals need a lot.

“I can’t say it will have zero effect (on other life), but it will be a minimal effect.”

Although officials are optimistic about another possible remedy to dealing with hogs, Taylor — the police chief in Italy — isn’t the only person with concerns.

“I am generally leery of poisoning for population-control purposes and concern with non-target species. But I will wait to hear how the further testing works out,” said Brett Johnson, urban biologist with the city of Dallas.

Since mid-April, Dallas has removed 500 hogs from several city properties through coordination with a private trapping business, Johnson said.

“I do not want to summarily take a potential control tool off the table,” he said. “If it humanely puts the animal down and minimizes the impact to non-target species, it may by a useful tool in some applications.”

Taylor remains unconvinced.

“Maybe we need to tell game wardens to just get out there and shoot ’em, but I don’t know if I could ever get behind poisoning,” he said. “Less lethal doesn’t mean not lethal at all.”

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©2018 The Dallas Morning News

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