My wife and I have property close by, as well, but we were just outside of the target area.
Rocky Creek forms our back property line and flows only a short distance before entering Di-Lane. Hogs have been using creek bottoms like that as they have steadily spread their destructive habits throughout this area where we live. Our property has been invaded just like all our neighbors, and anything to get rid of the hogs was welcomed. Getting rid of them with a helicopter was pure excitement.
Many of us have seen videos or at least heard of the helicopter hog hunts in Texas, and the idea of a buzzing chopper with a hunter strapped in ripping off endless rounds is what I imagined. I wanted to be a part of this, or at least cover it for GON.
A few emails and phone calls got me connected to I.B. Parnell, a biologist with Georgia’s Wildlife Resources Division. Conversation with Parnell led to my email introduction to Matt Ondovchik, a USDA biologist and Feral Swine Coordinator. I began to get some insight on when the ‘hunt’ was to get started.
The sounds of a helicopter and shots being fired could be heard around Di-Lane WMA the first week of March as U.S. Department of Agriculture personnel targeted wild hogs from the air. The reported tally was 417 wild hogs killed.
The sound of a helicopter on an early March Monday morning in the direction of Di-Lane was soon interspersed
with gun fire. Shortly, from across Rocky Creek, the sound of steady buzzing and numerous shots told me hogs had been located and the action must be pretty hot.
Quickly, I finished my task and jumped in the truck to make my short trip to Di-Lane. Even as I headed for the truck, the helicopter buzzed and more shots rang out.
By the time I arrived at the lodge at Di-Lane’s headquarters, the helicopter had landed, and I could see it on the lawn of one of the distant houses; in fact, the house I lived in when our family farmed Di-Lane, pre-WMA some 30-odd years ago. That house is now known as the hut, and the hut was home for the USDA personnel for the weeklong hog-eradication operation.
With permission from Ondovchik and John Bearden, DNR Wildlife Supervisor, I was allowed access up the closed road. It still feels a bit weird having to ask for permission to go where I used to take access for granted.
The bright red ‘whirly-bird,’ my term for any relatively small four-seater helicopter, looked small sitting on the lawn. The blades weren’t nearly as wide as I thought they would have been. The lawn wasn’t that large, but the copter easily fit in it.
I introduced myself to the air crew and supporting ground crew, which included USDA Wildlife Services and Georgia DNR personnel.
From the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), the crews included: biologist Elizabeth Miller; biologist and feral swine specialist Michael Heldreth; pilot Allen Beghtol, and the person who everyone seems jealous of, Ondovchik, who was the man behind the gun.
Georgia DNR personnel included: John Bearden, Wildlife Supervisor; Lee Taylor, Regional Supervisor—Game Management; John Viscuso, Di-Lane Area Manager; and biologist I.B. Parnell.
Shortly after our conversation began, I realized my perspective of this aerial control effort as a “hog hunt” was inaccurate. These folks were all business. This was not a game where success was optional. Everyone was guarded during our conversation, but I was soon enlightened to separate hunts in Texas from their aerial operation. This wasn’t sport; it was another tool in the USDA and DNR’s arsenal to reduce feral swine populations. The goal here was to eliminate or minimize associated damage to agriculture and livestock, natural resources and native wildlife, including threatened and endangered species. Wild hogs will eat just about anything they encounter.
During conversation with the crew, I quickly learned that safety was the first priority with all aerial operations. All USDA Wildlife Services crew members have completed NRA certifications and successfully completed an initial training through their Aviation Training and Operations Center (ATOC), which includes extensive training in aerial wildlife damage management operations. All crew members must pass firearms safety and proficiency qualifications set by the agency, as well as comprehensive background and drug testing. Wildlife Services requires annual recurring training and proficiency checks to all pilots and crew members involved in aerial operations.
The aerial operation on Di-Lane was just another facet of USDA Wildlife Services, which has been assisting GA DNR in the past with an integrated control program which incorporated large corral style traps in conjunction with strategic firearm removals when appropriate.
The operation was not limited to Di-Lane Plantation WMA. A total of approximately 30,000 private and public acres in Burke and Jenkins counties were included in a hog-control area that stretched from just north and west of Di-Lane in Burke County, down the Rocky Creek and Buckhead Creek drains to near Magnolia Springs State Park in Jenkins County.
Ondovchik said, “USDA, APHIS received funding from Congress, beginning in 2014, to implement a collaborative, national feral swine damage management program to minimize damage caused by feral swine for the protection of agriculture and livestock, natural resources, property and human health and safety. The APHIS national approach, led by the Wildlife Services program, involves reducing feral swine numbers to minimize damage in states where populations are large and widely distributed, and eliminating feral swine in states where populations are low or newly emerging. This initiative is the first coordinated, nationally led effort to manage the damage caused by feral swine and stop the expansion of this invasive species.”
GON first reported on USDA’s targeting of wild hogs in this area of Georgia after a Jan. 12, 2016 Feral Hog Management Workshop organized by the Brier Creek Soil & Water Conservation District. About 65 farmers, landowners and sportsmen attended that 2016 workshop, where Ondovchik said Georgia received a slice of $20 million allocated to USDA to battle wild swine infestations. The article about that workshop can be read online at www.gon.com/news/wild-hogs-in-georgia-targeted-by-usda.
According to USDA, utilizing the helicopter for control operations is extremely effective, but it works best in specific habitats during specific times of the year. It’s important to remember though, it is only one tool in a larger integrated control approach.
“Almost $100 million dollars in just agriculture is lost every year to feral swine in Georgia. Oftentimes farmers have to replant crops multiple times or experience major crop losses due to feral swine. Intensive, aggressive control programs are necessary to have an effect on the population and reduce the associated damage,” said Ondovchik.
The helicopter provides the advantage of allowing crew members to easily see, identify and confirm targets, thus avoiding any non-target animals. Entire groups of feral swine, or sounders, can be quickly removed without impacting sensitive habitats. The use of aircraft also reduces the need for boats, ATVs or vehicles where travel may damage sensitive habitats, or where rough terrain makes travel nearly impossible.
USDA and Georgia DNR personnel tested wild hogs that were killed for diseases that could be very damaging to domestic hog-farming operations.
DNR personnel and USDA biologists on the ground stayed in constant radio contact with the helicopter, so the biologists could draw blood samples from the downed animals. Feral swine are known to carry at least 30 viral and bacterial pathogens and many different parasites that can cause disease in humans, pets, livestock and wildlife. Disease transmission can occur through direct contact with feral swine, their feces and bodily fluids, by using food and water containers that have been contaminated by feral swine, or by eating raw, infected feral swine meat, organs or other tissues.
Hunters should wear gloves when handling feral swine carcasses or preparing raw meat to cook. It is advised to wash hands, equipment and work surfaces thoroughly when finished to minimize the risks of becoming infected. It is always recommended to cook the meat of a wild hog to an internal temperature of 160 degrees, as well.
The two diseases worth mentioning that USDA samples for and finds positive results throughout the state of Georgia are swine brucellosis and pseudorabies. A little info on both:
• Pseudorabies is an infectious disease caused by a herpesvirus. It is significant to the commercial swine industry because domestic swine in Georgia are considered pseudorabies-free. Infection in domestic swine often results in abortions or piglet deaths. Extensive research and money is spent annually to detect and prevent pseudorabies in domestic populations. There is no indication that pseudorabies has an adverse effect on wild hog populations. However, infected feral swine should be considered a potential threat to domestic livestock and hunting dogs and the presence should be noted. Although an important disease in swine, humans are not affected by this disease.
• Swine brucellosis is the second disease of note officials are concerned about in Georgia wild hogs. Swine brucellosis also poses no known adverse effect to wild swine populations, but it could affect the brucellosis-free status of the domestic swine in Georgia, should exposure to feral swine occur. The disease is caused by the bacteria Brucella suis and is primarily spread during reproduction. Unlike pseudorabies, swine brucellosis can be transmitted to humans. Infection typically occurs while handling, field-dressing or butchering feral swine. While human cases are rare, individuals handling and preparing feral swine are advised to wear proper protective gloves, practice good sanitation and thoroughly cook meat.
During this week-long intensive management operation, Di-Lane was closed to the general public. Only by special permission was I allowed access. I eagerly followed the DNR and USDA trucks shadowing the helicopter as we could hear, and only occasionally see, how the hogs were flushed from their hideaways.
From above, hogs were taken where ever they could be seen if they refused to leave heavy timber, even over the tall creek swamp. Beghtol deftly positioned the chopper so Ondovchik could use the specially approved shotgun loaded with 00 buckshot. This was not your typical shotgun, nor were the buckshot loads typcial. The buckshot were lead free, so they would not harm the environment, and they were frangible to reduce the chance of ricochet and collateral damage. The gun remained out of sight, in a confidential manner, so I wasn’t able to see or get pictures of it.
Still, it was exciting to be near the action as the helicopter maintained an element of surprise darting from one area to the other. The hogs may hold tight beneath the whirling blades, but the sound of the gun was enough to make them break from the briars and palmettos.
My ever-present question was always, “How may did you get?”
Finally, on the last day Ondovchik, in his ever present professional mannerism, gave me a final tally. The operation at Di-Lane resulted in 417 dead wild hogs.
Editor’s Note: The author wanted to offer special thanks to Matt Ondovchik, USDA biologist and Feral Swine Coordinator, for his input into this article.