Wild hogs have been ruining farmers’ crops statewide, a dilemma that led state officials to host the session at the Mountain View Inn. Their purpose was to hear some of the specifics of the widespread issue before the Tennessee General Assembly reconvenes on Jan. 14.
Leading the discussion were state Rep. Eric Watson, state Sen. Frank Niceley, Tennessee Fish and Wildlife Commissioner David Watson and Chris Richardson of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, along with officials from Polk County who had helped organize the event.
While attendees shared a variety of concerns, many centered around a shared desire to change the state’s hunting laws.
“Why we’re here is because of the regulations ... that are not comparable to any state around us,” said John Qualls, a member of the Polk County Wildlife and Fisheries Committee.
Qualls read a study that compared the hog hunting regulations in different states and said Tennessee had some of the strictest hog hunting rules in the region. He said he was concerned about property owners being able to protect their properties from the crop-destroying animals.
In 1999, the TWRA introduced a hunting season to control the wild hog population as it became a larger problem. However, regulations passed in 2011 said wild hogs were to be considered “a destructive species to be controlled by methods other than sport hunting,” despite having once been designated as “big game animals.”
Private property owners can shoot and trap hogs on their own land year-round during the day, according to TWRA regulations. Currently, residents of four counties in an “experimental area” — Cumberland, Fentress, Overton and Pickett — can use dogs to hunt the animals.
Despite what current regulations might imply, wild hogs have been recognized as a problem in Tennessee. According to the TWRA’s website, wild hogs are said to “cause extensive damage” to farmers’ crops, carry diseases and ruin some wildlife habitats. The animals have also spread throughout the state and can be found in 80 of the state’s 95 counties. They were once only located in 15 of them.
Several counties, including Bradley, have passed local government resolutions to ask the state to allow people to use hunting as an additional way to control the wild hog population.
Many of the officials in attendance shared why they were asking the state to create a hunting season for wild hogs.
Wayne Rutherford, a member of the McMinn County Wildlife and Fisheries Committee, said farmers in his county had continued to lose crops to wild hogs because they have not been able to rid their lands of the animals in effective ways. He said some had been optimistic about the 2011 state regulation change but soon found that the problem only got worse.
“They felt they were promised that the TWRA would take care of it without the hunters,” Rutherford said.
Bradley County Commissioner Adam Lowe said he saw three major issues with hog hunting across the state. In some areas, people were concerned about the “historical significance” of hunting. Lowe said two things he saw to be of major concern locally were land owner’s property rights and how vague current hunting regulations seemed to be.
In terms of dispatching wild hogs on private property, TWRA regulations state the animals cannot be shot at night unless one first obtains a permit from a TWRA office. Additionally, property owners who have 1,000 acres of land or more can only designate one person per 100 acres to control wild hogs on the property.
“Wouldn’t you want as much help as possible?” Lowe asked.
In addition to some region-specific hunting rules within the state, regulations also say that “wild hogs can also be taken incidental to scheduled bear-dog hunts” in state wildlife management areas.
However, Lowe said the word “incidental” has caused great confusion for some, a sentiment that was later echoed by other officials who attended the meeting.
He added that he spoke to one Bradley County farmer who said he risked “feeling like a criminal” when trying to rid his property of the pests.
“We’re looking for a clear policy revision ... a clear understanding,” Lowe said.
Some attendees stressed that the implications of wild hog hunting regulations reach beyond private property lines.
Polk County Executive Hoyt Firestone said his county’s biggest area of growth in terms of economic development has been in the field of agriculture. Destroyed crops have cut into some farmers’ profits there, but he said the current hunting rules have placed limits on what they could do to prevent further damage.
Wild hogs running amok without a dedicated hunting season has had a slightly different impact in some areas. Some county officials — those from Polk included — went on to say removing the season on hog hunting has hurt local tourism revenues, because some hunters used to make special trips to the area just for that purpose.
“Tennessee used to be a mecca for hog hunting,” Rutherford said.
Many in attendance said they wanted the hunting season to be reinstated in state wildlife areas as well as more freedom with what can be done on private property, like being able to use dogs to hunt in more than just the four current counties.
Watson thanked everyone for their input and said he and the other state officials would be considering what had been discussed.
Nothing was said about what recommendations would be after the meeting was dismissed, and Watson stressed the Tennessee Fish and Wildlife Commission is just one state agency that will be involved in the decisions.