Feral hogs invaded a NC preserve. These nature lovers started shooting back.

When feral hogs invaded a 1,400-acre tract in southern Davie County, the owners, a Salisbury-based conservation group, came up with what it says is a unique solution: Sign up hunters to settle the score.

Three Rivers Land Trust, formerly known as LandTrust for Central North Carolina, has battled hogs since acquiring the farmland between the Yadkin and South Yadkin rivers in 2012. Local people say the hogs were released there illegally a couple of years earlier.

These are not barnyard critters you might picture lazing away a hot afternoon in the mud. Non-native feral hogs are tusked, cunning omnivores that bulldoze the ground, destroying vegetation, in their search for food.

The Davie County hogs were ravishing local farmers’ corn and soybean crops, said Travis Morehead, the executive direct of Three Rivers.

“They use their nose to root around, dig up what they want to eat and leave the place a wreck,” he said.

This feral hog was trapped in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2004. Three Rivers Land Trust in Salisbury is signing up hunters to shoot hogs on protected land it owns in Davie County. John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

For years, the land trust has tried to control the hogs by luring them into corrals baited with shelled corn and by leasing hunting rights. Its conservation land manager, Cody Fulk, gets alerts on his cell phone when the hogs have taken the bait. Fulk can remotely view images of the trap and trigger the gate to close when the full group of animals, called a sounder, are inside.

Once trapped, the animals are euthanized.

Last year, when its hunting leases expired, the land trust tried a new approach that it says is unique among North Carolina conservation groups. It created a Sportsman Access Program that lets hunters onto the property nine months of the year.

Hunters pay $100 for four “draws” that allow them to hunt in the 200-acre block and week of their choice. About 100 hunters have signed up so far, but the program can accommodate up to 370.

Since 2015, 188 hogs have been removed from land trust property. The take this year alone has been 87 hogs. Three Rivers is working with Wake Forest University, which uses infrared drones, to estimate the total size of the herd.

It’s hard to find a kind word about feral hogs, which in addition to their destructive natures carry contagious diseases that can infect people and domestic pigs. Federal agricultural officials have estimated that feral hogs cause $1.5 billion a year in damage.

Hogs have become problems on the northern Outer Banks of Currituck County, where wildlife officers have shot them from helicopters. On North Carolina’s western end, Great Smoky Mountains National Park has battled feral hogs for decades, removing more than 10,000 since the 1950s.

Controlled hunts of nuisance wildlife aren’t unusual.

A growing number of communities around Charlotte turned to bow hunters several years ago to thin out the herds of deer that cause thousands of vehicle collisions a year. The Mecklenburg County parks department has held controlled deer hunts in the Latta Plantation, Cowans Ford and McDowell nature preserves to reduce the number that overgraze native plants.

Three Rivers Land Trust, which owns about 3,000 acres in largely rural Rowan, Davie and Montgomery counties, says it sees no conflict between its conservation mission and killing things.

Crew members in Great Smoky Mountains National Park transfer a trapped feral hog to another cage in 2004. Three Rivers Land Trust in Salisbury is signing up hunters to shoot hogs on protected land it owns in Davie County. John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

“Our definition of conservation is the wise use of a resource,” Morehead said, noting that hunters eat the hogs they kill. “When you say ‘conservation’ in those counties, most people think of hunting and fishing. We try to be very relevant to the population we serve, which is rural.”

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051; @bhender