Facing Up to the Russian Boar Problem in Michigan
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because where you land on regulations may be the newest political litmus test.
Wind whips across the Upper Peninsula, where Roger Turunen lies flat on his back in overalls and yellow work gloves, a County of Baraga beanie covering a Trump ’16 cap. He’s fixing his hopper, which holds the feed before it’s mixed and fed to his 1,800 pigs. “When you’re a farmer, you have to be electrician, mechanic, everything,” he says.
His hogs are rare specimens, impervious to the heat and the cold, he says, plus tasty to eat and smart enough to make a worthy hunt. It took a dozen years to perfect the breed and build a market appetite for them. And in 2010, it took just the stroke of a pen for the Department of Natural Resources in Lansing, an almost eight-hour drive away, to declare his pigs an invasive species, ordering them shot and buried. More than his livelihood, the decision threatens his “way of life,” the multigenerational farmer says: “We’re Americans. We grew up doing what we damn please as long as we weren’t stepping on someone else’s toes.”
… the conflict [over boars] embodies a national rift between government and some of the citizens whose liberties it’s sworn to protect …
That is where officials disagree, saying farmers like Turunen raise an ancient breed of beasts that can escape into the wild, clobber crops, deliver disease and liberate livestock — the state calls them Russian boars. Since then, farmers and regulators have waged war in courtrooms. The drama reaches past Michigan, through the Midwest and into the South. In all, more than 6 million wild pigs have spread across 35 states, and one recent study predicts they’ll reach every county in America “within three to five decades.” Even more than a state battle over swine, the conflict embodies a national rift between government and some of the citizens whose liberties it’s sworn to protect — a struggle that led many to back Donald Trump, who has promised comprehensive regulatory reform.
If each action inspires an equal and opposite reaction, it’s understandable that conservative railing against regulation deepened under President Obama, whose agencies passed a record 20,000-plus regulations that cost businesses $100 billion, according to the right-leaning Heritage Foundation. Among the most disliked federal actions were aims to reel in the internet (net neutrality opinions were dubbed “Kafkaesque” by one George Mason University researcher) and the Waters of the United States rule, an expanded interpretation of the Clean Water Act, which critics decried as a power grab by bureaucrats under the guise of protecting waterways and wetlands. In one example in California, fourth-generation farmer John Duarte was fined for plowing over a shallow depression that for much of the year is dry and in rainy season collects a small amount of water. One passing federal Army Corps of Engineer project manager determined Duarte’s action to be “deep ripping” of wetlands, which is illegal. “It’s a lot of stress,” says Duarte, who insists he followed established rules and has spent millions in legal fees battling the agency’s drive-by determination.
With their hands at all levers of the federal government, Republicans can now swing the regulatory environment in their favor. Shortly after taking office, Trump signed two executive orders: One put a moratorium on issuing new regulations; the other ordered federal agencies to erase two regulations for each one added. The House of Representatives passed the REINS Act, requiring congressional approval for all major federal regulations. And oversight regarding steam protection, methane prevention and resource-extraction disclosures also have been axed through congressional resolutions of disapproval. With Trump’s signature, those measures would reverse the Obama-era rules.
As deregulation becomes the non-law of the land, the issue is far from settled in the minds of voters. It’s a political litmus test of sorts. Take oversight of financial institutions. Almost two-thirds of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say government “has gone too far,” making “it harder for the economy to grow,” according to a Pew Center report released in early March. For Democrats and their leaners, 62 percent (compared to 29 percent) believe government “hadn’t gone far enough,” leaving “the country at risk of another financial crisis,” with more than half of Americans under 30 siding with advocates of more regulation. Regarding agriculture, some do welcome oversight: “The EPA plays a role that I know a lot of people don’t like, but certain things do need to be in place,” says John Boyd Jr., president of the Black Farmers Association.
In Michigan, regulators and their allies argue protections are critical. Unchecked, they say, wild boars multiplying in the thousands threaten to damage neighboring fields and drive out local wildlife. And catching them isn’t simple: “In terms of intelligence, nothing compares,” says DNR wildlife specialist Dwayne Etter. “It affects farmers on the other side,” says Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, defending the state’s enforcement of the law. Even casual hunters say wild pigs are a force. Eric Fulkerson of Kalamazoo says he finds “more holes dug by pigs than signs of deer,” adding that he hears them “squealing at each other right at dawn.”
Farmers like Turunen and Duarte say they already have incentives to be good stewards, with skin in the game culturally and financially. Yet Duarte says regulators shift standards to their own ends: “They don’t have a real definition of what ‘deep ripping’ is,” he says. Turunen cites a similar beef with regulators, and last November he won an appellate case when a judge agreed the state hadn’t met the standard of proof: “They go to court and say, ‘You have Russian boars.’ But they can’t prove what a Russian boar is.” The DNR is appealing the ruling, and a spokesman cites a separate court case, in which a judge defended their definition as leaving “little to the imagination.” Perhaps the true invasive species is Washington squabbling spreading through the states.