By Verna Gates
UNION SPRINGS, Alabama (Reuters) - Until the shot rang out, the air was so quiet the circling bumblebee sounded like a chain saw and the woodpecker its construction crew.
Clambering down from the 16-foot-high deer stand, hunters walked over to the pig wallow they had been staring at for the last four hours. A large boar rushed past at a speed unimaginable for an animal its size. The hunt was on.
Fast, smart and dangerous, the wild boar was once the most prized hunter's catch in ancient Greece.
Now it is becoming a popular target of hunters in the United States. An explosion of wild pig populations has become such a nuisance that hunting seasons are being flung wide open for wild hog across the nation.
Hunt specials can be found year-round on eBay in almost every state, and even the National Wildlife Federation, a protector of wild animals, has joined the fray. At its annual meeting in Washington last month, the organization called for an effort to "remove" the destructive animals, including "lethal harvest" as part of the plan.
Biologists estimate there are 5 million wild pigs in the United States. Once found mainly in the Southeast, Hawaii and California, they have spread over the last two decades into the Northeast and Midwest.
"One problem is that hunters are relocating pigs to hunt them and the territory is what is expanding so dramatically. They move slowly across landscapes on their own, so this is a human cause," said Dr. Steve Ditchkoff, an associate professor of wildlife ecology and management at Auburn University.
They have no natural enemies, and once introduced to new areas, the pigs bred out of control.
A female can produce up to 14 piglets per litter, and produce an average of 2.5 litters per year, an overwhelming birth rate, according to Pam Swanner, with Alabama Black Belt Adventures, a non-profit promoting hunting and fishing in South Alabama. "They breed almost like rabbits."
The explosion of wild pig populations is causing millions of dollars worth of agricultural damage per year, and destroying habitat for other game, prompting farmers and hunters to unite.
A group of 20 to 30 pigs, known as a "sounder," can destroy a 10-acre crop of corn in less than a week, leaving nothing behind but muddy ruts, said Mark Hainds, author of "The Year of the Pig," about his quest from Hawaii to Florida in search of wild boar.
Hainds, who was raised on a pig farm, has seen 40 acres of planted trees uprooted by pigs in a single season.
"They are devastating to a forest habitat," said Hainds, who works in forestry to restore longleaf pine habitat.
DIRTY AND SCARY
Damages beyond ruined crops include the suspicion that wild hog contamination caused the 2006 E. coli outbreak from spinach. The California Department of Health Services identified E.coli in the feces of wild pigs living where the contaminated spinach was grown.
Even less appealing is the fact that pound for pound, pigs produce four times the solid waste of humans, according to the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production.
Hainds said the pigs he has killed averaged 110 pounds, though feral pigs can weigh 300 pounds or more.
The Black Belt region of Alabama, known for its rich, black soil, is a magnet for wild pigs and a hot spot for hunters with more than 20 lodges offering pig hunt packages.
Feral hogs have thick bones and a tough hide, making anything but a death shot a potentially dangerous mistake.
"They are scary," said Hainds, who prefers hunting at night, in the open, on foot, with a knife.
Tracking the wild swine takes stealth and daring, as the animals have a keen sense of smell - just sitting still in an open area where pigs routinely come to feed was enough to alert them to human presence. Staying upwind is a must as is an accurate shot and varying locations, as pigs will learn the places where hunters roam.
"Pigs are smart, they don't like getting shot," said Hainds.
They are also aggressive. Few North American big game animals will turn around and come back at you, he added. To him, wild boar hunting has it all: a challenging hunt, tasty eating and a good turn for the environment.
While the majestic and gentle doe may deter more squeamish hunters, few harbor such a romantic vision of the hog.
"I can't shoot Bambi, but I can kill a pig," said Tim Shaughnessy of Kentucky, whose wife purchased as a gift a $500-per-person pig hunt for him and his two college-age sons.
Other game animals have limited seasons and bag limits, often one per day, depending on the state. But in most places you can kill as many pigs as you can shoot.
After the wild pig was shot on the hunt in Union Springs the hunting party gathered near the shooter in the growing darkness. Flashlights searched the ground for spots of blood.
Even if a small pig had been hit, it was capable of hurting and even killing even the hunters, if it charged. About half a mile away, the pig had collapsed on a small mound. A second shot rang out, putting the animal out of its misery.
(Editing Jane Sutton and Doina Chiacu)