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ALBANY – Already a major problem for farmers in the South, wild boars are now a target of the New York State government.

The wild boar population has been increasing in New York in recent years and state officials fear an explosion of the invasive species could be in the works.

But don’t blame the migration of wild boars from Texas, Alabama or Florida. Instead, the boars living in the wild here are largely escapees – and offspring – from the dozen or more upstate hunting preserves upstate that offer guaranteed kills in their fenced-in lands, according to federal and state agencies.

That’s about to end, as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is expected this week to sign a law that would, at first, ban breeding and importation and, by 2015, outright prohibit possession of the wild boar.

For Pete Smith, that’s a problem. He and his wife run Creekside Outdoors in Forestville in Chautauqua County. On any given day, the 500-acre site with a high fence includes up to 100 Eurasian boars for the 200 boar hunts he hosts each year. The preserve – on the grounds of a former dairy farm – also offers fallow deer, ram and elk hunts.

Open for boar hunting year-round, hunters can shoot a boar weighing up to 300 pounds for $625 and have its meat processed on-site for an extra charge.

With fewer than 20 such preserves in New York – no agency has a precise number – Smith said his small industry’s weak lobbying presence meant he did not stand much of a chance when the Legislature and Cuomo set their minds this past legislative session to ban Eurasian boar possession or distribution in New York.

Boar hunting makes up 60 percent of Smith’s family-run business, which he started 17 years ago.

“It’s probably going to close us down. We’re not going to be able to survive this,” Smith said.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation pushed the legislation.

Between New York’s new gun control law and the looming new boar restrictions, Smith said it has been a tough year for hunters. He believes the real aim of the legislation is to shut down the hunting preserves that offer what critics call “canned hunts.” He dismisses state officials’ claims that preserves are the problem, saying no boar has ever escaped his property.

Smith called the legislation an attack on small business that will drive hunters – his customers come from around the Northeast – to nearby states like Pennsylvania and Ohio.

“We’re really going to take the hit,” Smith said.

Found in 24 counties

But wildlife experts and state and federal officials say the boar problem in New York will get dramatically worse, and quickly, without banning possession of the animals.

There are no accurate numbers of New York’s boar population in the wild, though they are believed to be in the hundreds. A U.S. Department of Agriculture report last year put New York crop damage by boars at $470,000 between 2008 and 2012.

“We don’t want them in New York,” said Paul Curtis, an extension wildlife specialist at Cornell University who has directed its wildlife damage management program for two decades.

In New York, sightings have been reported in some two dozen counties, including in the Southern Tier. Boar breeding areas have been found in Tioga, Cortland, Onondaga, Clinton, Sullivan and Delaware counties. All those areas, according to the Department of Agriculture, are near hunting preserves.

The boar problem began worsening in New York about five years ago, according to Curtis.

“They’ve shown they can definitely survive northern New York winters with no problem at all,” he said.

Officials have said protecting crops, farm animals and wildlife outweighs the financial hit the dozen or so hunting preserves will suffer by taking boar off their hunt list.

In the 213-member State Legislature, only six lawmakers voted against the legislation. It had widespread ideological support, including from an upstate conservative Republican and Manhattan liberal Democrat who sponsored the measure.

“They’re an invasive species,” said Sen. Betty Little, a Warren County Republican.

Damage spurred law

Little said she sponsored the bill, in part, after a Clinton County farm in her district felt $25,000 worth of damage to corn, apple and strawberry crops from hungry boars. A boar can eat up to 10 percent of its weight in a day.

The measure allows hunting preserves to keep the boars they now have until September 2015, giving them time to adjust to the crackdown, Little said.

“It’s difficult for the preserves, and I do have a couple in my district,” she said. “But I was actually surprised that these animals are used at hunting preserves.”

Assemblywoman Deborah Glick acknowledged wild boars are not a problem in her Manhattan district. The Democrat said she originally got interested in the issue because of her opposition to what she calls “canned hunts.” She said the bill she agreed to is not a broad attack on hunters’ rights but addresses a specific problem that farmers and hunters alike should agree on.

“That I had support from many upstate Republican members from both houses is a reflection that they are hearing from constituents that there’s a lot of crop damage,” said Glick, who also owns a second home in upstate Delaware County.

Glick said she preferred an immediate ban but compromised to give time for the preserves to adjust to the restrictions.

The DEC declined to comment for this story.

Here for 400 years

Eurasian boars were introduced to North American more than 400 years ago as a food source and, later, for hunting. They got into the wild, either intentionally or by escaping, and today represent a major problem in Southern states.

In Texas alone, boars cause $52 million a year in crop damage, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

While Southern states can do little about the problem given their boar populations, other states have taken steps before devastation occurs. Wisconsin has banned boar possession and Kansas has made it illegal to hunt boars as a way to limit the importation of the animals to the state.

The boars causing problems can be intentionally or accidentally released domestic swine, or a Eurasian boar or a hybrid of the two.

Males can weigh 300 pounds or more and females can have two litters a year of up to eight piglets at a time. At that rate, the boar population could expand threefold in a few years in New York, officials fear.

The boars, which are omnivores, are scavengers that consume everything from nuts and berries to eggs of ground-nesting birds.

And they often eat food that native animals, from deer to turkeys, rely upon. Besides destroying crops, the boars are known to carry up to 30 viral and bacterial diseases.

Preserve escapees

While lawmakers say hunting preserves likely do not intentionally release the boars, the animals can escape by burrowing under fences or fleeing if a tree falls during a storm and damages a preserve’s barricades.

Curtis said the legislation Glick and Little sponsored will add to on-the-ground efforts of wildlife experts to reduce the state’s wild boar population. That now focuses on known locations of feral swine breeding grounds. The ones that have been caught came from New York hunting preserves or swine-breeding facilities, he said.

Most boars in New York are the Eurasian strain, which are larger than the domestic swine that can breed with the Eurasian boars.

“It will probably eliminate the shooting-preserve industry in New York,” Curtis said of the legislation. “That’s the primary source of the problem in New York.”

But Smith, the Chautauqua County hunting preserve owner, said his facility is not to blame for the problem and yet his business is now being threatened.

“They’re obviously trying to put pressure on hunting preserves,’’ Smith said.

email: tprecious@buffnews.com