Monday, October 26, 2015

Hog Bomb Explodes

Two years ago, in early November, I set out for a backpacking trip into the interior of the St. Francois Mountains. We pitched camp near Devil's Wall and explored the successive igneous dome landscape for three days. Two years ago, the remnants of the May 2009 windstorm were still quite prevalent, making traversing areas of the mountain range a slow and calculated process. However, it was great to be in the interior with no sign of other hikers or even illegal ATV use. The abandoned logging roads were showing great signs of healing, with no notable traffic. But that was two years ago.

By the time we pitched camp at an early sunset of 5:30pm with the long shadows and low light casting its fall glare, I also felt confident that we would not have wildlife visitors at my camp; with such diffuse backpacking in the region and development miles away, imprinted wildlife was not a threat. I was right that night and weekend--we encountered no signs of feral hogs, black bears, mountain lions or even racoon or opossums. The winds that whipped off the top of the igneous dome were more forceful than any of the wildlife threats posed to us.

I have returned to the St. Francois Mountains on multiple occasions in the past two years, mostly for day hiking. Sadly, ATV use is rampant in the valleys between the igneous knobs, and the old logging roads have been resurrected, reconsecrated with regular use into the once-secluded interior of the mountains. But a worse threat, above all others, is the feral hog situation, aided and abetted by all the access points. On a visit there a few weeks ago, I see that the hog situation is absolutely out of control. Every igneous glade and surrounding natural community has been rutted by feral hogs. The upland flatwoods that exist on the level plain, areas with a seasonally perched wetland and stunted little trees, have been obliterated by feral hogs. So long, those ancient populations of Rhexia. To add insult to injury, the old logging roads that had been healing and essentially decommissioned when I backpacked there in 2013 are now arterial. So, no more pitching camp in any area with an old road nearby. (Similarly on gravel bars--I won't pitch a tent on a gravel bar that has a road leading to it and a connection to a well-trod and populated area. I'm not much scared of wildlife but of other people.)

Trapping efforts are ongoing in the area, but I am unclear if the root of the problem has been addressed. Trapping and removing hogs would seem to be a terrific solution if no more hogs were being regularly released. All of the ATV use, the old logging roads with traffic, this incredibly rugged and precious landscape, the oldest geologic formation in the Ozark Highlands with suites of rare plants and animals, is being seriously degraded by feral hogs.

In 2008, I spent my early November backpacking trip in Oklahoma's Charon Garden Wilderness at the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge, an area often referred to as the St. Francois Mountains on steroids. Bison and elk roam across two million acres or more and backpacking into the wilderness area requires a permit, once much sought after. They have waiting lists for backpacking permits so that the camping pressure and human influence will not damage the wilderness character and naturalness of Charon's Garden.

I have only backpacked at Wichita Mountains once and it was the first time I encountered natural communities that looked like a rototiller had dug them up. The rooting, digging, wallowing and sheer destruction of the wilderness landscape by feral hogs in Oklahoma was shocking. I wrote to the refuge, encouraging them to manage the hog situation or, at the very least, alert backpackers of their presence. (This was the trip where I saw a line of 30 hogs coming over the hill to my campsite and I overturned my pan of lentils to bang on it with a wooden spoon so they would go away) I received no response from the staff and since then, other friends have commented that the collared lizard population is not "what it used to be," and the area has been significantly damaged. Threats to naturalness and the wilderness character from backpackers? Try the Russian wild boar bomb that exploded since 2008.

Some will argue that during the age of open range grazing following European settlement, hogs, sheep, goats, cows all roamed freely across the Ozark dome. Because of the very destructive age of open range grazing, we can't even measure what we've lost because there are so few reference condition landscapes left in Missouri. To boot, we're dealing with fragments today, highly threatened fragments that lack a predator-prey relationship, natural processes on a landscape scale, and deer numbers far exceeding the carrying capacity, and now another invasive species threatening biodiversity. Species richness does not readily accrue once the natural community's intact soil profile has been damaged. If it did, we would not be left with a legacy of trashy, low diversity woods and a rare plant list that continues to grow. Playing Johnny Appleseed and "creating ecosystems" is not the answer. Throwing seeds of Mead's milkweed or other rare plants on an igneous knob after the hogs destroyed the fragile soils and microbial components with their rutting is also not the answer. Conservation efforts must look at protecting and preserving our intact native ecosystems. Feral hogs are yet another threat to the longevity and sustainability of our natural heritage.

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