— According to the latest estimates, Australia has more wild hogs than human beings, perhaps more than 23 million. No one is certain how many wild hogs roam Pennsylvania -- mostly escapees from commercial hog-hunting preserves and their offspring.
But both commonwealths need to control and perhaps eliminate feral pigs, which are a highly destructive species, according to Theodore Alter, professor of agricultural, environmental and regional economics in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.
Penn State is collaborating with Australia's University of New England and the Invasive Animals Cooperative Research Centre, or IACRC -- Australia's largest integrated invasive animal research program -- to face the problems presented by wild hogs and other invasive vertebrate species. The project is aimed at bringing new approaches and added support for rural communities wanting to better manage risks these creatures pose.
"In Australia, invasive animals are a high-priority issue that most rural residents are well-versed in and concerned about," Alter said. "They deal with a range of more than 50 species of invasive animals, such as feral cats, feral swine, wild dogs and rabbits, pest fish such as carp, and some birds."
In Pennsylvania, he noted, feral swine are an emerging threat, posing health risks to people and livestock. "But my sense is that this is not well known or well understood by the public."
Recently 13 Australians -- leaders in helping communities manage these and other natural resource issues -- participated in a three-week, intensive short course at Penn State. Their focus was on providing support to rural communities and local government officials who are struggling with invasive animals such as wild hogs.
In addition to Penn State experts, the group spoke with representatives from the Pennsylvania Game Commission, the state Department of Agriculture, the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, the Pennsylvania Invasive Species Council, Cornell University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
"We wanted to compare hog control in Australia and the United States, particularly Pennsylvania and New York, and we wanted to get a sense of the institutional and public policy differences between the two," Alter said. "We were able to exchange ideas about how to work more effectively with landowners, citizens and the public in the context of these animal-control issues."
The course, part of a broader IACRC program titled "Facilitating Effective Community Action," also contrasted leadership and engagement strategies for dealing with invasive animals. It looked at using technology in the fight against wild hogs.
"For example, using radio-collar technology over time would help us get a sense of what control strategies might be most effective." Alter said. "In Australia, they are using that technology to better engage landowners and help them get a clearer sense of where these animals go and what impacts they have on landholders and native wildlife.
Page 2 of 3 - "Here in Pennsylvania," Alter added, "if we collared and tracked wild hogs in strategic locations, this might help communities to better understand the nature of the issues and the potential impact of these animals."
If that were done, Alter said, wildlife scientists in the College of Agricultural Sciences could work with the Game Commission and other state agencies to implement the technology and track wild hogs.
"And we certainly would be involved in the issues associated with engaging citizens, landowners and local officials to develop control strategies and manage hog populations," he said.
Wild hogs in Australia are the descendants of domestic pigs that explorers such as Captain Cook released as a living larder for future expeditions. Over the centuries since then, the animals have found the vast spaces Down Under to be hog heaven, with plentiful food, a balmy climate and no natural predators. Unlike in the United States, specific breeds, such as European wild boar, have not been introduced for hunting.
Now they are wreaking havoc on the Australian economy. In the tropical state of Queensland, wild hogs are causing millions of dollars of damage to crops and are threatening the survival of endangered rainforest animals. They also attack and eat some domestic livestock, such as young lambs. Complicating their management, their meat cannot be eaten, due to worm infestation and disease.
Controlling invasive animal populations in Australia is more of a community-based endeavor than in Pennsylvania, where the state takes major responsibility.
"The management of most invasive animals depends on the motivation, capacity and coordination of volunteer community groups, who are the backbone of rural sustainability," said Professor Paul Martin, who is leading this community action research at the University of New England.
"But who will lead and support these groups? And what skills will these leaders need in an age of the Internet, an aging rural population and increasingly diverse rural land uses and communities? Those were the questions we attempted to answer during the short course at Penn State."
Roxane Blackley, who works with the nonprofit Queensland Murray Darling Basin Committee, said she found the short course to be "timely and invaluable -- a great opportunity to be immersed in critical thinking and new ideas with a great group of people from many backgrounds.
"We worked on strategies that will better enable communities to lead the fight against invasive animals like wild hogs," she said.
Page 3 of 3 - "That strategy includes equipping those involved in community leadership with advanced knowledge and skills to deal with the human dimensions of invasives control, developing new communications tools and tackling the situation where rules and administrative arrangements get in the way of communities taking effective action."