While hunters have been in the field, marshes, swamps and forests for the past two months, Saturday marks the first time when virtually all seasons are open to all hunters with all kinds of weapons.

Saturday is the opener of the modern firearms season for deer in the southeastern parishes, a day avid deer hunters have marked on their calendars for months, even planning vacations around that day and the next eight that follow, and have gear packed to spend the week of the Thanksgiving holiday in stands and ground blinds.

Odds are, deer won’t be the only animal they’ll find in the woods, fields and food plots.

That’s because feral hogs have taken up residence in most ever corner of the state. Like former State Deer Study leader Scott Durham said a few years back, “There are two kinds of landowners in Louisiana, those who already have feral hogs, and those who will have them in the near future.”

Hog populations have grown to “pestilence” levels — the modern version of a biblical plague — and in some coastal areas have replaced the nutria as the major nuisance animal. Durham said his survey of deer hunters after the 2014-2015 hunting season showed hunters and landowners killed more feral hogs than whitetail deer, an estimate of nearly 300,000 feral swine in the five-months, all-weapons deer season.

“I can’t overstate what feral pigs mean to our deer population,” Durham said. “Those pigs compete with deer for food. Deer don’t like to be around hogs, and because of that hogs are a stress to deer numbers.

“Hogs cause absolute destruction to our habitat across the state. They belong in a pen, in a farming operation. They’re not native to our landscape, and hogs are to blame, in part, for the decline in the number of deer.”

To boil the problem down into simple sentences. Feral hogs eat like pigs and breed like rabbits, and because they do, increasing populations put a strain on available food sources for deer, squirrels and other fur-bearing animals.

There’s more: No amount of hunting pressure has been able to control the spread of this animal across the landscape. They have no natural predators. Because hogs are omnivorous, they can survive on a variety of food sources, even themselves.

So how bad is it?

The latest word from the LSU AgCenter is that Louisiana farmers lost more than $75 million to feral hogs.

But those losses could pale in comparison to the damage to fields, forests and marshes, and beyond because hogs have been found rooting on protection levees, an activity that, if left unchecked, could result in levee failure.

In September’s Field & Stream, writer Will Brantley cited a Texas study showing hogs raiding turkey and quail nests, and, when the opportunity presents, have eaten fawns.

Brantley reported the national effect, “wild pigs do an estimated $1.5 billion of crop damage, Their ecological effect — including impacts on native wildlife and habitat — hasn’t been quantified, but some biologists believe that number is closer to $20 billion annually.”

What now?

The advice from Durham is while hunters are in the woods and armed, shoot the hogs.

There is also a warning about making sure the animal tromping through the woods is a hog. In at least two instances in the past three years, hunters have mistaken black bears for feral hogs, and pulled the trigger.

Trapping is another effective means to control populations, but not as a means to continue holding feral hogs. Brantley talked with retired U.S. Army master sergeant Rod Pinkston, who founded a hog-control company, Jager Pro Hog Control system. Pinkston traps the pigs, then his team shows up with a gun and kills them.

Even the LSU AgCenter recommends, “The most effective way to control feral hogs is trapping and killing them.”

Still, the focus for Durham, Pinkston and others, is population control because, it appears, it’s difficult to eradicate hogs from a landscape, although Pinkston’s approach has worked in several locations.

Into the future

Matt Capelle works at the AgCenter’s Idlewild Research Station near Clinton and spends most of his working hours studying hog-removal methods. Most of that work reinforces the belief that the only good feral hog is a dead feral hog.

“We’re working on developing a medium, a way to introduce sodium nitrate into the diets of feral hogs,” Capelle said Wednesday. “What happens is when the hog ingests sodium nitrate, it changes the blood. It does not allow oxygen to bind in the blood.”

And when that happens, a hog dies. It’s that simple, but there’s a whole lot more to the process than hog control.

“We need to find a bait to pull hogs off whole-shelled corn, and we’re working on a delivery mechanism that will not affect nontargeted species. We want this to be pig specific,” Capelle said. “It can be done, and we know there is no silver bullet. It’s going to take everything, trapping and aerial shooting. We’ll never get rid of all of them. Our target is to take 70 percent of the population every year just to keep feral hogs at a manageable level.”

But can you eat them?

Brucellosis suis is found in feral hogs, but not all feral hogs. The state Department of Health and Hospitals reported two cases in 2012, and that both victims reported “cutting their hands while preparing raw hog meat.”

The best advice for hunters is to wear disposable plastic or rubber gloves when dressing or cleaning wild hogs, then bury or burn the gloves and the hog’s entrails, then wash hands with soap and hot water.

Brucellosis is eliminated from the meat by thoroughly cooking it.

In its website, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has the most extensive information about feral hog problems, control, including trapping methods, and handling and preparing the meat: tpwd.texas.gov/huntwild/wild/nuisance/feral_hogs/