VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. – Wild pigs whose blood lines likely date to Virginia's earliest white settlers are tearing up sensitive beach lands with their tusks and threatening rare plants at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge.
As a result, the state is considering ways to limit the numbers of the hairy, snorting hogs.
They include expanding annual hunts, trapping and removing some of the animals, and baiting and killing a certain number each year and donating the meat to homeless shelters.
"Clearly, something more needs to be done," said Bob Duncan, state wildlife division director. "The hog population down there is exploding."
Duncan conducted a study in which all 16 female pigs that were examined were either pregnant or lactating.
"When 100 percent of your sample is successfully breeding, that's an incredible sign that your population is doing quite well," he said.
The feral pigs, each weighing more than 100 pounds, are thought to have arrived on Virginia Beach's remote coastline as domesticated pigs accompanying English settlers in the 1600s.
They were raised for their meat and allowed to roam free amid the dunes and piney forests that today are public parkland and nature preserve.
Through the years, the hogs also have somewhat returned to their European roots: They now have straighter tails, darker skin and longer snouts. They look more like wild boars than farm pigs.
Kyle Barbour, manager of False Cape State Park, said he noticed for the first time last year that the hogs were venturing onto ocean beaches, lured by tasty crabs.
Scientists think the animals are expanding their territory for new food sources.
Scientists wouldn't venture a guess on their numbers.
"We're not talking about tens of thousands, but it's significant," Duncan said.
For years, the preserves have allowed limited hunts to curb hog numbers. About 60 hunters participated in October's hunt.
Feral hogs pose a public health threat because they are capable of carrying brucellosis and rabies. In Back Bay and False Cape, though, Duncan found no such diseases in any of the hogs he sampled between January and March.
The animals are extremely skittish around humans, taking off when they realize that someone is near. They do not see well, but have remarkable senses of hearing and smell.