Saturday, November 29, 2008

Oink. Bang!

I think we were talking about my mother's plans to make Grandma Betty's date loaf when Daddy slyly left the Thanksgiving table. No one even looked around until we heard the tell-tale "sh-cock" of the gun as Daddy checked the rifle for ammunition. When he glided to the table with a lovely something-or-other gun and said, "Hey, Ally, try this one" and I shouldered the rifle, all of us knew what he was thinking.

Earlier this week, my mother told me that she would "really appreciate it" if I repeated the same story about my encounter with feral hogs in Oklahoma once more. She knows I don't like repeating stories, but when she plaintively asks (with her head tilted to the side) "Come on. Please?" any loving daughter would oblige. So following a three pie dessert at Thanksgiving dinner, I told my Daddy and everyone else at the table about my backpacking trip into Oklahoma's Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge earlier this month. "Charon's Garden Wilderness Area is unlike anything you've ever seen before...." Enormous granite boulders cover thousands of acres. Staff don't manage the refuge with fire, but with grazing; elk and bison herds roam the landscape here, providing an ecological function unmatched east of the Rockies. Imagine Taum Sauk Mountain (Missouri's highest point, located in the St. Francois Mountains) covering thousands of acres. Granite boulders covered in grasses, stunted post oaks and blackjack oaks. From the tops of the mountains, you can see the flat lands of Texas and the prairie of Oklahoma. Several species of cacti grow here, along with fields of Indian blanket (Galliardia grandiflora), a habit which is likely a sign of overgrazing by large herbivores rather than anything natural.

Getting a permit into the Wilderness Area is nothing short of a hassle. Twelve backpackers at a time are allowed into the backcountry. You can only stay two nights. No open fires. You have to camp in a designated area. You can request a permit two months in advance (which I did and was put on a waiting list, thus making me call every morning for three weeks until I scored the permit). Refuge managers feel that visitor overuse is compromising the integrity of the wilderness resource, so they're strict about entry. But after hiking in less than a mile, we saw evidence of a much greater threat than off-trail trampling, than overgrazing by bison and elk, than even fire suppression.

Midday, my colleague and I set up camp in an old buffalo wallow (no rocks!) when he heard a snorting from below the rim of the mountain. Listening closely, he thought it was an elk, but as he peered over the mountainside, no fewer than 30 feral hogs came charging up the mountain towards our camp. I made a lot of racket, the hogs made a 90 degree turn north, headed towards a grassy field on the lee side of the mountain. Oh, we took pictures as the enormous animals and their piglets walked single file over rocky terrain, but by the time I grabbed my camera they were pretty far away. Rogue trails, too many illegal campsites, overgrazing by native herbivores? None of these threats pose even a fraction of the danger to the integrity to biodiversity and other natural resources of the Wichita Mountains that feral hogs do.

I had never seen feral hogs before, despite all the time I spend in the woods. Several hundred miles east of the Wichita Mountains in the heart of Missouri's St. Francois Mountains, feral hogs run wild, rooting up glades and fens, devouring torpid amphibians, disturbing the soil, making it amenable for exotic species to move in. I know that feral hogs in south Louisiana have so devastated bottomland forests by overturning logs and rooting up soil that once common salamanders are hard to find anymore. My mother wanted me to tell the story about the hogs rushing our campsite because she's heard horror stories of hog populations on a family member's land. She knows they're destructive, and they're dangerous, too. I think my mom liked the image of her 100 lb. daughter scaring off 30 hogs without the use of a gun.

After the hogs were no longer in sight, my colleague and I discussed whether we should stay -unarmed- in the wilderness area for the next three days. Knowing that it took 8 hours to get there (following weeks of trying to secure a permit), we decided to stay, but agreed that if each of us was there alone, we'd high-tail it out immediately. Thoughts on that lovely mountaintop turned to Missouri and her feral hog problem. But first, a long grousing over the irresponsibility of the Wichita Mountains' refuge manager for not warning backpackers about the presence of hogs.

Missouri is one of the few states that has designated a team of resource specialists to contend with the feral hog problem. The Governor's Feral Hog Task Force is a multiagency team that traps, kills, and removes feral hogs from public lands. Aside from the Missourians who illegally release feral hogs on public lands, the task force members tend to be the first to know about new hog populations. Colorful ArcView maps track populations, where traps are set, how many animals have been killed in each location. The locus of activity these days is the glade-rich Taum Sauk Mountain area, where populations of federally endangered Mead's milkweed grow. On Taum Sauk, as in other areas with hogs, wire fences with one way doors are baited with corn, and as the hogs are trapped in the small area, they're killed and hauled off the mountain via an ATV. Endangered Species biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have dealt with hogs in their own way: they've constructed hog wire fences around fens where Hine's Emerald dragonflies breed and where known populations of Mead's milkweed grow. A low-tech way of dealing with hogs, indeed, but if hogs are in the area, the entire landscape is threatened with utter destruction. And hogs certainly don't discriminate based on biodiversity ratings. Apparently, there are so many hogs in the St. Francois Mountains these days that black bear sightings have skyrocketed. Hikers tend to mistake one for the other.

Efforts are underway to make hunting hogs illegal in Missouri. While this may seem counterintuitive to our problem, it's actually very sensible. Currently, locals buy hogs from farms in Texas, release them on public lands, and offer guided hog hunts to folks from St. Louis and as far away as Wisconsin. Hound dogs are trained to locate hogs, and a Missourian from Shannon Co. with a pack of hog-hunting dogs can make upwards of $200 a hunt by renting out his dogs. To make the process easier on the dogs, they'll release hogs themselves in known locations so dogs can quickly find them and hunters go home with bacon and pork loin. As it stands, the Feral Hog Task Force is waiting for the day that a feral hog released in Missouri tests positive for brucellosis or pseudorabies. Once that happens, they just might have the support of the Farm Bureau to outlaw hunting, as the brucellosis threat to existing domestic hog populations will outweigh any economic benefit of renting dogs.

So, conversation at the warm, comfortable Thanksgiving table turned to discussions of Ally killing hogs with a 30-06. Actually, my older sister Ashley (who avidly kills things but specializes in home decorating) and Daddy debated whether I could handle a 30-30 or a 30-06 better. My concern in the discussion centered around how a big rifle would fit into my Gregory Denali backpack. I'm notorious for overpacking as it is, and a loaded gun would add an awful lot of weight. Ashley tells me that she doesn't even take a stroll in Louisiana's woods these days without a gun because of hog populations. I imagine when I go backpacking in the St. Francois Mountains this winter, I may carry a gun for self defense against hogs. I'm a good shot, really, and can shoot down any clump of mistletoe in Caddo Parish. But Ashley and Daddy talked about the best place to aim for on a hog if you have limited ammunition, the thickness of the bone between the eyes. They never ventured into how to field dress a 500 lb. animal when you're a vegetarian who can't even touch raw chicken without getting nauseous. You see, in Missouri it's illegal to kill animals and leave them where they died. (Of course, laws don't stop folks in the Ozarks from wantonly killing coyotes.) Before I go backpacking, I'll have to find out if I can just kill hogs and ask someone else to haul them out.

We finally left Daddy's without a gun, but with a catalog of guns to show to my boss (despite my insistence that the state will not pay for a gun). When I returned to my mother's house across the Red River, she referred to the hog killing discussion: "You know, I think your father now understands that you have a real job." Yes, talking about killing things, the prospect of using all of those clay pigeon skills in a paying job, that's how a girl can make a father proud.

Pictures! The Wichita Mountains, hog damage in the Charon's Garden Wilderness Area, and me with a gun and a scope. I decided I liked the Japanese WWII gun that came with a bayonet most of all.


beetles in the bush said...

Add alcohol to the mix and you could be dangerous (note glasses of wine on the table).

I've never run into a feral hog yet, myself, although I did find a beautifully clean, intact skull in a Twain Forest glade down in Taney Co. My daughter named him 'Boris.' Later I found a tarp-covered horse skeleton in the St. Francois Mts. I brought home the skull - a caved-in left occiput and a bullet lodged in the right maxilla told the story of what happened to this poor beast once he was no longer "useful." My daughter named him 'Horace" - get it? Boris and Horace?

all my best -- ted

Beetles In The Bush said...

btw, you have been awarded -- ted

Allison Vaughn said...

Yeesh! I get really creeped out by bones, pelts, skulls, all the trappings of a real naturalist. I'd still have nightmares if I saw a horse skeleton with a bullet hole in the head. I'm fascinated by the desiccated mule deer on the side of the road in Utah, though. I just stare at them while I'm parked on the shoulder. By the way, it really must look like we're a family of hillbillies with alcohol and guns...dang it. But it was Beaujolais!