Springfield lawmaker pushes tougher penalty for setting feral hogs loose

Austin Huguelet
Springfield News-Leader
More than 9,300 feral hogs like these caught in a trap were killed in Missouri in 2018, according to MDC.

A local lawmaker wants to ramp up punishment for anyone helping feral hogs expand their territory in the state.

Legislation from Sen. Lincoln Hough, R-Springfield, would upgrade the penalty for releasing pigs into the wild without a permit from a high-level misdemeanor to a low-grade felony.

Sen. Lincoln Hough, R-Springfield

It also makes some key changes to statutes to make it easier to charge the crime in court.

Missouri Department of Conservation officials say the plan would help address a major obstacle to their efforts to eradicate the hogs, which cause millions of dollars in damage each year digging up farmland and habitat across southern Missouri.

U.S. Department of Agriculture maps show a combination of government trapping and hunting from helicopters have paid off in the last four years, shrinking the hogs’ range in much of the Ozarks and eliminating their presence in Greene, Lawrence, Dade, Cedar, Polk and St. Claire counties.

This map from the U.S. Department of Agriculture tracks the progress of state and federal efforts to eradicate feral hogs in Missouri from 2016-2020.

But Aaron Jeffries, one of MDC’s deputy directors, said that progress could be undone if people aren’t deterred from moving hogs back into those areas, where some would hunt them for sport.

“We’ve had hogs over at Stockton and Truman lakes for 25 years and now we’re down to the last couple,” he said. “The last thing we need is someone to come in and dump off another load of hogs.”

A host of powerful agriculture industry groups backed him up in a Senate committee hearing on Hough’s bill this week.

B.J. Tanksley, a lobbyist for the Missouri Farm Bureau, said members of his group have heard many stories about how residents released the destructive animals here in the first place, and told senators that can’t happen again.

“There's a lot of money being spent both from the federal government and the state government to make sure we're getting rid of these things,” Tanksley said, “and we have to make sure that somebody's not coming from behind us and undermining those efforts.”

Jeff Reed, a cattle producer in hard-hit Wayne County, seconded that sentiment, telling senators the hogs cost him about $100,000 per year by destroying crops and digging up pasture.

"(Illegal release) has happened in the past, and there's very little to deter people who are doing it today,” he said. “A possible felony would certainly serve as a strong deterrent."

A herd of feral hogs pollute a  spring on private property in Ozark County.

There was no opposition in the Senate committee Monday, though some voiced concerns about a similar bill heard in a House committee the next day.

Rep. Chris Dinkins, R-Annapolis, whose district covers a lot of feral hog territory, said the bill seemed to go against efforts to reform the criminal justice system in recent years.

“Putting a felony on a nonviolent crime is something that I have a hard time dealing with,” she said.

Rep. Chris Dinkins, R-Annapolis

According to fiscal analyses, if the bills are passed the state might bear the cost of putting an estimated two people in state prisons and seven on probation within three years.

Other critics submitted written testimony to the committee objecting to the House bill out of apparent distrust for the Conservation Department, which some in the Ozarks see as a tyrannical interloper, especially when it comes to feral swine.

That's mainly due to how it has enforced its view that the best way to root out the pigs is to have government agents trap them in large groups and then kill them.

MORE: Feral hog experts to lawmakers: 'You can't hunt your way out of this problem'

Private hunters objected, but officials said letting them shoot hogs one by one is inefficient because when one is shot, the rest of the group, or “sounder,” scatters.

Then the department banned private hunters from shooting the hogs on its lands in 2016 and encouraged the federal government to do the same in Mark Twain National Forest in 2019.

That last move sparked some passionate opposition, especially among those in the Lead Belt area in southeastern Missouri where the hog population is densest.

Dozens came to the Capitol to protest. Another critic ignored the new rule and strung up a dead hog next to a sign announcing the ban.

MORE: Hog hung next to no-hunting sign sends message loud and clear

Republican lawmakers from southern Missouri also filed bills threatening the department’s funding, but none passed.

The committee did not immediately vote on either bill this week, which is what usually happens the first time legislation is heard in a given year.

The legislation is Senate Bill 236 and House Bill 508.

Austin Huguelet is the News-Leader's politics reporter. Got something he should know? Have a question? Call him at 417-403-8096 or email him at ahuguelet@news-leader.com.