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Evidence suggests feral pigs are moving into central plain

Feral pigs root for food alongside a feral chicken earlier this month in the Kealia Pond area near the entrance to Maui Electric Co.’s Maalaea generating plant. The Kealia Pond Natural Wildlife Refuge put up 2.3 miles of 7-foot-high fencing at a cost of $250,000 to keep out deer, dogs — and pigs — a few months ago. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Feral pigs made themselves noticed in Maui’s central plain this summer as motorists dodged them on major roadways and state crews have had to pick up the not-so-fortunate ones as roadkill.

The state Division of Forestry and Wildlife, which collects dead deer and pigs on county and state roads, picked up four pigs along Kuihelani Highway and one pig along Maui Veterans Highway, formerly known as Mokulele Highway, from January to early October, said Department of Land and Natural Resources spokeswoman Deborah Ward.

Pig roadkill has been an unusual sight for regulars who use those highways. A motorist called The Maui News recently to report that the vehicle in front of him on Hansen Road, near the Pulehu Road junction, nearly struck a pig.

A local hunter said he’s seen pigs next to the fence line waiting to cross Maui Veterans Highway to get to Target in Kahului. He also had a small wild pig in his yard in Kahului.

The Kealia Pond Natural Wildlife Refuge has observed what “seemed like an explosion of pigs in the last year, year and a half,” said refuge Manager Joseph Schwagerl. The refuge in Kihei/Maalaea finished putting up 2.3 miles of 7-foot-high fencing at a cost of $250,000 to keep out deer, dogs and pigs a few months ago, he said.

This young pig became roadkill on Kuihelani Highway on the shoulder of the Kahului-bound lanes between Waiko Road and Maui Lani Parkway. This photo was taken Oct. 8. State wildlife officials have had to pick up pig roadkill on Kuihelani Highway and Maui Veterans Highway, previously known as Mokulele Highway, in recent months. The Maui News / LEE IMADA photo

Feral pigs have been known to cause damage in watersheds and protected wilderness areas on Haleakala and in the West Maui Mountains. Miles of fencing have been built to keep pigs and other animals out. Pigs are known to rototill soil, dig up plants for food and eat eggs of birds.

But their presence in the flat central isthmus has been less common, and there appear to be no studies ongoing to examine the presence of pigs in the more urban areas of the island near sea level.

“Anecdotally, we don’t have enough data to indicate pig movements or numbers in these areas of concern,” said Ward.

State Transportation Department spokesman Tim Sakahara noted “a slight increase in dead pigs” along Kuihelani and Maui Veterans highways, but nothing quantifiable.

“I’ve got no numbers,” said county spokesman Rod Antone when asked about the pigs. “It isn’t something we’ve been keeping stats on.”

Feral pigs root for food alongside busy North Kihei Road earlier this month in the Kealia Pond area. Refuge Manager Joseph Schwagerl said there “seemed like an explosion of pigs in the last year, year and a half,” which necessitated the building of a fence. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

He did say that county road crews Upcountry and hunters have noticed pigs for years in Central Maui and that their presence appears to be cyclical.

“However, they have noticed that it has been happening more often, although we aren’t sure why,” Antone said. “Speculation is that water is more scarce, and they’re looking for sources of it outside their usual territory, much like we’ve seen the axis deer do.”

Some are speculating that the increased presence of wild pigs is related to the shutdown of sugar operations at Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. last December.

Calling it “just a guess,” Schwagerl conjectures that the pigs are not being chased out of the 36,000 acres of former sugar fields regularly for harvesting like they used to and may be reproducing more.

Others, including hunter Jayson Kina, don’t buy that argument. He said that he’s noticed pigs in the central plains since 2011 and that it’s likely they’ve been around years before that.

Haleakala National Park’s feral animal management team said that feral pigs have been spotted at lower elevations for decades and are likely not moving from higher elevations to lower elevations, said park spokesman Charles Lassiter.

Park data indicate that non-native animal catches are about 1.5 times higher during summer/dry months than in other months. This is likely because of a decrease in food and water availability during drought periods and an increase in movement of animals in search of food, Lassiter said.

Alexander & Baldwin, the parent company of HC&S, did not have much to say on the pig subject.

“Feral pigs have been found in the central valley for years, not just at higher elevations,” said A&B spokesman Darren Pai.

A&B holds wildlife control permits, which allow crews to control game mammals on its property from a half-hour before sunrise to a half-hour after sunset every day of the year, said John Medeiros, Maui wildlife biologist with the state wildlife division. He said that A&B has had a wildlife control permit since 2016.

“Like many other agricultural entities, we use wildlife control permits to minimize crop damage from wildlife,” said Pai.

Kina, who hunts mostly deer “but if a pig comes by I’ll take it,” said that the feral pig presence in the central area is widespread and will keep increasing. He said that a piglet got into his yard, though he was unable to capture it.

Eradication efforts, like those employed to control exploding deer populations, may be necessary, said Kina, who is mostly an archery hunter.

“The only difference is that pigs can have multiple piglets, whereas deer have just one,” he added.

Kina said he’s heard from seasoned hunters that recent deer eradication efforts have eliminated hundreds of deer.

“But it hasn’t made a dent in the deer population, so imagine how the pigs are,” he said.

Feral pigs can pose some danger to those who approach them, Kina said. Mothers become aggressive when protecting their piglets, and pigs become aggressive when cornered and put in defensive positions.

Kina said he heard that a co-worker’s girlfriend hit a pig while driving in the Waikapu area.

Sakahara, noting sarcastically that “pigs are not going to be using a crosswalk,” pointed out the dangers of a car hitting a wild pig on Kuihelani and Maui Veterans highways, where vehicles travel 40 to 50 mph.

He urged motorists to drive safely.

Dogs could go after pigs and be hurt or killed, Kina added.

The Maui Humane Society does not have statistics on feral pig roadkill because its enforcement department picks up only dead domestic animals, for which statistics are kept, said CEO Jerleen Bryant.

DLNR is responsible for picking up other roadkill, including pigs, from public and private property, she said.

To report county roadway roadkill, call 270-7869; for state highway pickups, call 873-3535.

* Lee Imada can be reached at leeimada@mauinews.com.