In the long history of invasive species in Appalachia, no story is more striking that that of the European wild boar. Often called Russian boars, they probably came from Germany. In 1908 an English corporation established a private hunting preserve in Graham County, NC, and stocked it with game animals including buffaloes, Russian bears, and wild boars. None flourished except the shrewd and resourceful boars that soon escaped into the mountain wilderness where they have proved enormously destructive of the woodland ecology. In 1959 the Great Smoky Mountains National Park began an eradication program that has to date removed over 10,000 hogs. But still they survive, a continuing threat to the wellbeing of the natural environment.
If you pay close attention as you drive through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park or pause along the Blue Ridge Parkway you may detect an occasional, slight rustle just out of view. While the movement might just be leaves stirred up by the wind, it could also be one of the many forms of wildlife native to the region such as black bear, white-tail deer, or red fox. However, it is also possible that what caught your eye is a non-native, invasive species introduced by man to the Appalachians a century ago, sus scrofa – the European Wild Boar.
The Snowbird Mountains lie in the extreme southwest portion of North Carolina, bordered by Georgia, Tennessee, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. William Holland Thomas organized several Cherokee communities in the nineteenth century. One near Fort Montgomery (present-day Robbinsville in Graham County) was designated “Snowbird.” It is from this township that the surrounding mountains derive their name. The modern-day Snowbird Mountains boast the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness, a magnificent preserve harboring huge, ancient trees within old-growth forests. There, in 1908, the Whiting Manufacturing Company of England bought a large tract of land. On their land, on a mountain known as Hooper’s Bald, the company established a game reserve – stocking it with various non-native animals. It was here the first European wild boars were imported to the Southeastern United States.
Whiting constructed a 600-acre hog lot surrounded by a split rail fence. In 1912, the company bought fourteen European wild hogs (eleven sows and three boars) from an agent in Berlin who advertised the hogs as being from Russia’s Ural Mountains. The animals were shipped by rail to Murphy and then by oxcart to Hooper’s Bald. The hog lot was not secure to begin with, and for more than five years the hogs rooted out and escaped and returned at will – all the while increasing in number. By the time the first boar hunt was organized in the early 1920s there were over one hundred hogs. Only two were killed on the hunt, with the rest escaping into the wild. These escapees became established in the mountains of Graham County and also over the state line in Monroe County, Tennessee. Eventually, the game preserve atop Hooper’s Bald failed and was taken over by the U.S. Forest Service. Today it is part of the Nantahala National Forest. However, thousands of hogs, descendants of those original fourteen imported in 1912, continue to thrive throughout the region.
Most people are familiar with the pig common to livestock-raising in the United States. However, even for those who have never seen either, there is no confusing wild boars with their domesticated cousin. European wild boars have pointed and heavily haired ears. Long hairs forming a partial mane grow along the spine of the neck. The mane is formed by split hairs called bristles, which may reach 5 inches in length. The tail is also tipped with long hair. Adults vary in color from black to light gray to reddish brown. Piglets are light brown and almost always are born with six brown and five black stripes on each side. These stripes are usually gone by the time the animal turns four months. Well-developed canine teeth that grow continually are found on both sexes. These tusks can become very sharp, grow as long as five inches, and make the hogs powerful foragers and formidable foes.
The wild boar is bigger and heavier in the shoulders than in the hips. Adult males average 180 pounds and females about 160 pounds. Though their European counterparts often exceed 500 pounds, the largest wild boar recorded in the Appalachians weighed in at just under 350 pounds. They often live for up to ten years, and females usually produce an annual litter of about five piglets.
Though European Wild Boars are intelligent, adaptable animals, their designation as an invasive species is well-deserved. Invasive species are defined as non-native plants, animals, insects, fungi, or diseases that enter a region and expand aggressively, significantly altering native species and ecologies. In the Southern Appalachians few species are as dangerous to others or as destructive to the environment as the wild boar. They can create an immense amount of damage by contaminating water holes and rooting through soil for food. Wild hogs are also a problem to farmers. They kill both native and domestic animals, eat and damage crops, damage fences, and can pass on diseases to livestock. Wild boars are omnivores, eating fruit, roots, beetles, young rabbits and other small animals as well as carrion.
Since the 1950s various methods and programs have been adopted in attempts to control or decrease the wild boar population in and around the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Over 10,000 have been removed in an eradication program conducted by the federal government. Many species have struggled when their wilderness territory is compromised by increased human development and contact. To date, the wild boar has been able to resist the effects of loss of habitat. And conservation efforts that preserve trees and other plant life serve in turn to strengthen the wild boar population.
Ironically, the initial reason why the European wild boar was introduced in America, for sport-hunting, is one of the few methods that check boar population. Besides man, wild boar have few predatory enemies. One to two hundred boars are harvested by hunters annually in western North Carolina; three quarters of those killed are in Graham County. The first open hunting season was held in the Cherokee National Forest in 1936 and in the Nantahala National Forest in 1937. It was not until 1979 the boar was designated a game animal by the NC Legislature.
Boar hunters place shooters on likely escape routes while dog handlers with strike dogs flush boar. Strike dogs are specially trained to track boar and are very expensive. Handlers boast of their dogs as if they are members of the family. When the strike dog detects a fresh trail, it is released. If a boar is located, additional dogs are released and the chase is on. With luck the dogs will chase the boar within range of one or more shooters. Since using dogs to hunt boar is similar to using them to hunt for black bear, both seasons occur concurrently. Stalking boar by moving quietly through feeding areas is another method used by hunters. This requires much patience and walking. To be successful, the hunter must detect the boar before the boar detects the hunter. Other hunters prefer to mount a stand in natural feeding areas and wait until a boar is sighted on its approach.
The European Wild Boar, welcome or not, is now part of our rural culture. Today, boar hunts are joined by other forms of outdoor adventure. It is no longer necessary to ascend Hooper Bald by oxcart. Modern visitors enjoy a twenty-minute drive up the 5,400 foot mountain via automobile along the Cherohala Skyway. Things have changed in western North Carolina. However, a part of our heritage, the diligent wild boar, is resisting both mankind and encroaching civilization as it continues to exist much as it has for the last one hundred years.
Essay by Timothy N. Osment
For more information please see:
- “Invasive Species” in Encyclopedia of Appalachia, Rudy Abramson and Jean Haskell, eds., 2006
- Wildlife Research Report-European Hog Research, Richard H. Conley,
- Strangers in High Places, Michael Frome,1994
- “Fall Food Habits of European Wild Boar in the Southern Appalachians” in the Journal of Wildlife Management, V.G. Henry and, R.H. Conley
- Graham County Centennial, Jack D. Lavin
- The European Wild Boar in North Carolina, Perry Jones