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Hog farmers snort at Michigan’s boar ban

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

Marion — Russian wild boars have been described as Asian carp with legs, 200-pound marauders that dig up lawns, decimate crops, spread disease and kill livestock.

They also happen to be delicious.

The dichotomy has helped spur a vicious food fight in Michigan that, after six years, shows few signs of slowing.

The latest salvo came in November when a judge ruled the state Department of Natural Resources failed to prove a farmer’s pigs were Russian boars, which are illegal in Michigan. The DNR is appealing.

“The DNR knows they can’t be held accountable so they just run over you like a freight train,” said Roger Turunen, the Baraga farmer involved in the November ruling.

The battle lines were drawn in 2010 when the DNR adopted an invasive species order banning ownership of the boars.

On one side are wildlife officials who said the ban was needed to nip a growing problem before it spiraled out of control.

On the other are small hog farms and hunting ranch owners who said their livelihoods are being threatened.

The six-year fight has sometimes turned personal and as brutish as the mammal at its core, said state officials. It certainly has rolled around in the mud, they said.

YouTube videos harangued state workers by name, posting personal information about them. A 2014 documentary funded by DNR foes accused its agents of raiding farms and shooting piglets, which never happened.

“This is a war,” said Mark Baker, a hog farmer from Marion. “Their (DNR’s) ship is on fire and you’re lobbing cannon balls at it. You need to do it until it sinks.”

But it’s the DNR that seems to be winning. As the legal battle rages, the 2010 ban is having an impact.

Boar sightings, which had been growing in Michigan since 2001, began to drop in 2013, according to DNR statistics.

Most farmers and hunting preserves are complying with the ban but, if the DNR loses the ongoing court case, the swine could become a problem again, said Pat Rusz, director of wildlife programs for the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy, a citizens group concerned with preserving wildlife.

“This is serious stuff we’re talking about,” Rusz said. “The damage they do is something to behold.”

Michigan’s problem with feral pigs began in 2001 when they began to escape from hunting preserves, state officials said.

They reproduced in the wild with their number reaching 3,000 by 2010, according to the DNR. Since the 2010 order, the agency estimates the number has dropped below 1,000.

It’s hard to get a precise number because the swine are so elusive, wildlife experts said. They travel by night and spend most of their time in dense woods or flooded areas with few people.

Fences don’t stop them. Neither do traps. They’re a quick study who will abandon an area if they sense someone trying to capture them, experts said.

Dwayne Etter, a DNR wildlife research specialist, said the boars are the wiliest animals he has ever encountered.

“Their intelligence is on the top of the list in my 30 years of work,” he said.

While the stealthy creatures are hard to spot, their handiwork isn’t. Babe, the movie pig, they’re not. More like Babe’s nasty-tempered cousin with a bristled snout, curled tusk and razor-sharp teeth.

When not snacking on a farmer’s corn, beans and wheat, they’re eating his chicks, lambs and calves, wildlife experts said.

When the Michigan Court of Appeals upheld the constitutionality of the ban in 2015, here’s how it described the boar:

“They escape, breed vigorously, spread disease, eat crops, defecate in lakes, and genuinely cause ecological mayhem,” the court wrote in its opinion.

The ‘raging Russians’

Some boar characteristics that drive state regulators batty are the same reasons hog farms and hunting ranches like them.

They’re tough, resilient survivors, able to withstand the harsh Michigan winter, hog farmers said. Their elusiveness makes them prized prey for hunters.

Bear Mountain Lodge in the Upper Peninsula touts the hunting of “raging Russians.”

“Are you the one to stand before the full fury of a Russian boar?” asks its website.

The 210-acre hunting camp is allowed to keep the pigs while it appeals a circuit judge’s ruling last year that the animals be destroyed and the owner pay a $2,500 fine.

The website claims the camp has 75 to 90 boars, but the DNR said it has only 10.

Camp owner Greg Johnson, who calls himself the “Moose Man,” declined to talk to a reporter.

The former owner of another hunting camp said it was unfair for the state to ban boars after businesses had owned them legally for years and years.

“They have too much power,” Ron McKendrick said about the DNR. “They’re too bent on putting people out of business.”

McKendrick sold his Renegade Ranch in Cheboygan in 2013 after the state sued him for violating the ban by owning 15 boars. His business dwindled after the lawsuit and the 300-acre ranch is now used for horseback riding.

After the ban was adopted in 2010, several hog farmers and hunting ranches filed lawsuits against the state. The legal fight has seesawed back and forth ever since.

The dispute has been muddled by the fact that all pigs are descended from the Russian boar, experts said.

The DNR’s description of boars included characteristics shared by barnyard pigs, such as erect or floppy ears, and straight or curly tails.

“Talking to the DNR about pigs is like me telling you how to fix your computer,” said Turunen, who raises pigs for hunting camps.

Swine tactics

One of the lawsuits against the state was filed by Mark Baker, whose hog farm in Marion is named Green Acres, after the 1960s television show. The show featured a pig, Arnold, who understood English, watched TV and attended school.

Baker, who sold pork from his prized Mangalitsa pigs to high-end restaurants, used Russian boars to crossbreed with Mangalitsa to help the animals weather Michigan winters.

The state fined Baker $700,000, which was $10,000 for each of his 70 pigs. He eventually got rid of the swine.

Besides fighting in court, Baker mounted a public campaign that made him the face of the DNR opposition. He spoke to property rights groups around the state and posted YouTube videos that drew a wide national following.

For his legal bills, he mounted a fundraising drive through pledgie.com that received $66,000 from 1,300 people.

In a 2013 video, Baker displayed the photos and work addresses of two assistant attorneys general who were defending the DNR against his lawsuit.

Baker said he wasn’t trying to intimidate the attorneys.

“Me showing their picture isn’t close to them trying to take what they did,” he said. “It’s just thuggery what they’re doing to families like mine.”

Another Baker video shows Hal Martin, an assistant attorney general, confronting Baker before the start of a circuit court hearing in 2014.

Martin wasn’t one of the attorneys general identified in the 2013 video but apparently had been mentioned recently in another video.

“You want to do that stuff, then do it to my face, but not to your internet followers,” Martin told Baker. “You know I can’t defend myself.”

“It’s a public forum, Hal,” Baker said. “You can make videos, too.”

“You don’t get it, do you?” Martin asked.

Martin declined to talk to a reporter.

Invoking Judas Pig

Before imposing the ban in 2010, Michigan declared open season on the boars. It allowed hunters to shoot them year-round.

The DNR also worked with the U.S. Department on Agriculture on a tactic to thin the herd, state officials said.

After capturing a boar, they attach a radio collar to its neck and allow it to lead them to the hiding places of his compadres. Once they find the boars, they kill them.

The tactic is called Judas Pig.

“They do a tremendous amount of damage,” Etter said about the boars.

The state’s actions seem to be having an effect.

While the boars remain a problem in the central U.P., which is where Bear Mountain Lodge is located, their numbers are dropping elsewhere, Etter said.

But Rusz isn’t ready to declare victory just yet.

He has watched other states dealing with the problem experience a drop in boar sightings only to have the problem come roaring back.

“The problem is people are acting already like they dodged a bullet,” he said. “This is still a work in progress.”

fdonnelly@detroitnews.com

(313) 223-4186