Here’s the good thing about ginseng – it’s worth a ton of money and it’s in the ground, fresh for the taking in 19 states. You know what I’m going to say next, right? Yeah, harvesting wild ginseng is really difficult. Forget about the whole scaling a mountain through the rain looking for a few tiny signs that ginseng is present while trying to avoid scorpions and snakes. On tonight’s episode of Smoky Mountain Money, the ‘seng hunters discover yet another obstacle: wild, Eurasian boars.
Yes, unfortunately for some ginseng hunters, wild hogs are a pain. And not just in the sitting-through-a-bad-John-Travolta-movie-with-your-family kind of way – actual feral swine can threaten a ginseng hunter’s life and livelihood.
No wild pig is native to North America. According Cambridge University, conquistador Hernando de Soto introduced pigs into North America in the sixteenth century. Over the next several centuries, pigs who came to live in Appalachia got fat off of the abundance of nuts and acorns, their population only checked by occasional human hunt for meat. The first ginseng hunters presumably didn’t really have any trouble with these somewhat smaller hogs.
This, of course, changed. The current ecosystem was shaped by the introduction of Eurasian boars into North America. Just over a century ago, the European boar established its beachhead in Appalachia at a game preserve in Hooper Bald, North Carolina. The enclosed boars eventually got out of the fencing and evaded capture, mating and producing offspring with the now-native local swine. In a report for the Wild Pig symposium, the Savannah River National Library wrote that the introduction of the wild boar at Hooper Bald had the greatest impact on the boar population in the United States. Descendants of this particular group of pigs can be found throughout the southeast and even in California.
Invasive species typically only receive this type of scientific attention if they are wreaking damage on an ecosystem. Indeed, feral hogs threaten the already fragile Appalachian ecosystem. The National Library report cited above concluded that hog rooting, wallowing and defecating threatened aquatic species living in mountain streams by contaminating the water. Feral swine also jockey with herbivores living in surrounding areas.
More important to the multi-million dollar ginseng economy, wild pigs also root around destroying plant seedlings and disrupting plant growth. This rooting weeds that compete with ginseng for resources to grow. There have not been extensive studies done on the effects of rooting on ginseng specifically, but surveying the damage that rooting has done to other habitats in Appalachia, ‘sengers should be concerned that rooting could be damaging the increasingly threatened wild ginseng supply.
There are many inventive ways to combat invasive species. But resilient animals who established a foothold and have been allowed time to incubate are difficult to eradicate. Hunting wild Eurasian boars and their mixed offspring has become an encouraged yet largely ineffective control method in some states (although as The Economist points out, hunting laws vary widely). For ‘sengers, there’s an extra to getting rid of wild hogs: beyond the damage that they do to crops through rooting, according to the Washington Times, boars are known to munch on wild ginseng.
The perhaps more immediate threat to hunters is safety. However, a pig charge like that in the show is fairly uncommon. Like most wild animals, feral hogs are fairly skittish and prefer to avoid human contact if possible. They’re also nocturnal, so the chances that you’ll encounter one on an Appalachian hike are slim unless you’re planning to stroll through the night. Still, boars can be provoked and with their sharp tusks and fairly incredible strength, an encounter with one should be treated with caution.