After sunset Monday, four-man sniper teams from the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office will begin prowling the levees outside of Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve on the West Bank, using night-vision goggles and .308-caliber rifles to rid the area’s hurricane protection system of what has become one of its most immediate threats.
Feral hogs have been around for years, but late last year, they began tearing up the levees north and east of the park at such a rate that the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-West has struggled to keep up with repairs.
Packs of hungry hogs rooting for worms and grubs along the 32-mile stretch of levee were destroying patches of grass and roots as large as 20 square feet, weakening the levee. Crews would repair the damage at an average cost of $4,000 per 100-foot stretch, only to return the next morning to find the hogs had come back to tear it up again in a single night.
So after months of study and a pilot trapping program that proved inadequate, the authority has signed an agreement with the JPSO that will have sniper teams shooting feral hogs about two nights a week for the next year. The hope is to reduce their numbers and drive those that remain back into the nature preserve.
“Their population has expanded exponentially,” authority President Susan Maclay said Thursday at a news conference, noting that feral hogs also have been spotted at the Westwego canal and other West Bank locations.
The $25,000 effort drew immediate comparisons to other battles the JPSO has helped wage against invasive species, particularly its headline-grabbing campaign against nutria beginning in the 1990s under former Sheriff Harry Lee. The JPSO first got national attention as its SWAT patrols drove along the parish’s canals at night, shooting and killing upward of 25,000 nutria.
“First nutria, then coyotes, now feral hogs,” joked Sheriff Newell Normand, Lee’s successor.
Normand told reporters gathered near Barataria Boulevard on Thursday that there are some lessons to be gleaned from the nutria eradication program, which is ongoing, and efforts to keep coyotes out of populated areas. But, he said, other areas are battling the same problems with feral hogs and the program will be monitored to make sure it’s producing the best results.
“We’ve seen tactics used similar to this all across the Gulf South,” he said.
Normand said the sharpshooters will be using silencers and firing toward the park at night, after it’s closed. Deputies will drag off the carcasses, while any hogs that are wounded and slip into the park will be left where they die.
“When they begin to experience pressure here, they’re going to go to the path of least resistance, and hopefully that is going to be back into Jean Lafitte National Park,” he said.
Maclay said the authority believes the hogs were driven out of the park by Hurricane Isaac and, before that, the opening of the Bonnet Carre and Atchafalaya spillways. Once displaced, they migrated outward, and the levees have proved to be a veritable buffet of worms, grubs and larvae.
Feral hogs have no natural predators here, and their appetite for procreation rivals their appetite for food.
Females are fertile after only six months and can produce two litters per year. A single litter can turn into more than 2,000 hogs in the space of two years, and the authority estimates that 70 percent of the population needs to be eliminated twice a year in order to have an effect on the overall population.
Maclay said the authority briefly used the services of a volunteer trapper, but he could not trap hogs fast enough. Also, she said, the hogs become adept at avoiding traps.
“The other thing that’s frustrating is they are very smart,” she said.
While the damage to the grass and root system is immediately noticeable to the eye, the problem isn’t aesthetic. The root system of the grass is crucial to the strength and integrity of the levee during rainstorms.
“You can’t just have earthen material without the grass,” Maclay said. “The grass is your armoring.”
Reporters were taken to a section of the levee to look at large patches of damage that maintenance supervisor Chris Muscarello said has been repaired three times in the last 14 months.
Nearby, he said, there is a patch that was far worse. “It looks like someone took a tiller and just tilled up all the ground,” he said.
Normand said he’s hunted feral hogs before and has seen 1,000-acre plots of land completely overrun. A friend took as many as 30 hogs in a single day during a yearlong campaign to beat them back, he said.
If the program is successful in driving the hogs back into the park, Maclay said, the authority likely will build an electrified fence along the levee, similar to one the Army Corps of Engineers has put up along a small portion of the levee.
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder