Editor’s Note: This is an installment in our occasional series, It’s Your Money, that looks more closely at public expenses that taxpayers may not realize they’re being asked to pay.
If Mayor Peter Carlisle hosted a luau the pig might be a little pricey, especially if it came from one of Honolulu’s botanical gardens.
In the last five years, the city has paid the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services branch to trap, shoot and kill 233 feral pigs that root around in the gardens, dropping feces and damaging the tropical and native flora that grow there.
The city has so far spent about $305,000 on this pest control effort, and is expected to add another $52,000 to the total in the coming year.
That breaks down to about $1,400 per pig.
For that amount, you could take 15 friends to the Polynesian Cultural Center for a luau and evening show.
You could take a few more if everyone got the kamaaina discount.
“Damn, that’s a lot of quarters,” said Ollie Lunasco, head of the Oahu Pig Hunters Association. “Believe me there are a lot of people out in the community who are willing to do it for free.”
Lunasco is running for state representative in District 45, the Waialua-Mililani area. He said he was “flabbergasted” by the amount of money the city spends to keep pigs out of the gardens. First it made him laugh. Then it made him scoff.
“I can understand if there was nobody around that would do it, but I don’t think that’s the case,” Lunasco said. “I’m pretty sure if they approached me I would have my phone ringing off the hook to get into the program … I would probably get guys breaking down the door trying to take care of these problems. And they would probably do it for a lot less, if not free.”
USDA Wildlife Services also captured and killed 23 feral chickens while under contract with the city, but officials said the resources used were negligible when compared to the pigs.
Hawaii’s feral pig population is large. So large, in fact, that USDA Wildlife Services officials can’t even venture a guess.
One way the population is controlled is to allow hunting, which costs Hawaii residents $10 for a license. The price for visitors is $95.
In many places around Oahu, the season is long — year round in some places — and hunters are allowed to bag one pig a day. There’s no limit on the number pigs a hunter can kill in a season in many locations.
USDA Wildlife Services also works to control populations, although the agency focuses on limiting conflicts between pigs and people.
“There are so many different entities that we work for, the Navy, the Air Force, the Army, the private sector,” USDA Supervisory Wildlife Biologist Darrin Phelps said. “The idea behind pig control is you’re always trying to eliminate the nuisance and the threat.”
In Honolulu’s botanical gardens, which fall under the purview of the Department of Parks & Recreation, feral pigs damage the plants and soils, threatening the health of local and sensitive species.
The pigs also leave behind their droppings, which can carry disease, and potentially pose a safety threat to garden visitors. This is one of Honolulu Botanical Gardens Director Winnie Singeo’s largest concerns.
“Little pigs are cute, but they grow up to be big animals,” Singeo said. “I don’t want them to hurt anybody.”
She likens the damage pigs cause to that of a rototiller, a machine that rips apart grass and soil. Ever since the city contracted with the USDA five years ago the health garden grounds has rebounded, she said.
“It’s helping a lot,” Singeo said. “If we didn’t have the eradication control program we’d be inundated by pigs.”
USDA Wildlife Services has several methods for catching swine. Employees can use corrals, non-lethal leg snares or lethal neck snares.
The agency’s contract with the city states that hunters can use dogs, although that’s not really feasible in the gardens unless there was a willingness to trample over the plants that officials aim to protect.
Once a pig is caught — and assuming it’s still alive — one of USDA’s hunters “euthanizes” it with a “well-placed” bullet to the head. The carcass is then taken to a designated landfill for disposal.
“You probably won’t even know we’re there,” said Homer Leong, who supervises the USDA pig control program. “You might see our truck go by, but that’s all.”
It’s not cost-effective to catch the pigs and relocate them, he said. It doesn’t solve the problem. They move around and can come back.
Leong, who used to hunt pigs recreationally before it became his day job, said that landowners can choose to keep the kills. Still, Wildlife Services recommends against this for safety purposes.
Most of the costs associated with pig control come from salaries and benefits. Of the $51,754 the city plans to spend in the coming year with USDA, nearly $36,704 is for these costs. Most of the rest covers vehicle use, supplies, and overhead.
Leong said Wildlife Services used to have volunteers help capture and kill pigs, but that involved various rounds of training. Now he has seven employees.
It’s also not feasible to use hunters, he said, because the mission is different.
“Hunters are looking for the big pigs — the trophy,” Leong said. “When we come in we’re looking for damage and trying to control it.”
And there’s a distinction between that and eradication, he added. They’re not trying to get rid of all of Oahu’s pigs.
“There’s no way,” he said. “That’s like trying to eradicate rats.”
Now that’s job security.