JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri conservation officials have refused to move forward with a plan to process feral hogs for poor people to eat, saying the invasive animals don’t meet food safety standards.
The Department of Conservation sends the nonprofit Conservation Federation of Missouri a state grant each year to run Share the Harvest, a 30-year-old program for deer hunters to donate venison to poor people.
But this year, the Department of Conservation left $300,000 budgeted for the program on the table after lawmakers required the money be spent on processing feral hog meat in addition to venison.
Instead, officials intend to pull $125,000 from another fund to pay the Conservation Federation next month. Because lawmakers forbid money from that pot from going to the Conservation Federation, a court fight could be in store if the state Office of Administration blocks the Department of Conservation from paying the nonprofit.
“They (lawmakers) wanted to double the amount (of money) and they wanted to also include feral hog meat, which we’re not going to do that for obvious reasons,” said Aaron Jeffries, deputy director of the conservation department.
The disagreement exposes long-standing rifts between the Legislature and the Department of Conservation, which is governed by the independent Conservation Commission.
Feral hogs have become a flashpoint as they reproduce rapidly and root up land across much of southern Missouri.
The Department of Conservation has for years discouraged hunting hogs, saying that when one is shot, the rest of their group — called a “sounder” — scatters, making it harder to capture large groups of them.
Still, hunting of the hogs persists, as evidenced by the Facebook group Missouri Feral Hogs, where hunters’ feral hog takes are posted and moderators routinely blast the Department of Conservation for its handling of the situation. The group has more than 15,000 “likes.”
Moderators push for an “all methods” strategy that includes dogs, night hunting, trapping and snaring.
Despite some hunters butchering the beasts for eating, officials are opposed to distributing the meat on a mass scale.
“Feral hogs carry several diseases, so I’m not sure why we would want to provide an inferior food product to families in need,” said Lucas Bond, spokesman for the Department of Conservation.
In addition, he said, “Federal and state regulations require livestock to be brought in alive for processing. This is not practical in remote areas of Missouri and would be counterproductive to eradication efforts.”
Because deer are considered wildlife, regulations allow them to be brought to processors already dead, Bond said.
“Feral hogs are an invasive species that are not considered wildlife ... they’re livestock,” he said. “Deer are considered wildlife not livestock.”
Tyler Schwartze, executive director of the Conservation Federation, confirmed the group had not added feral hogs to its program. Almost 350,000 pounds of venison were donated to the Share the Harvest program during the 2019 deer season.
In addition to the state, Share the Harvest receives funding from corporate sponsors, including Bass Pro Shops.
The current agreement the Conservation Federation has with the state, inked in 2019 and renewed last June, makes no mention of feral hogs.
But the House, in a plan spearheaded by then-state Rep. Robert Ross, R-Yukon, added feral hogs to the program.
“This is a great source of protein for these individuals,” he said last year. “Right now, these hogs that are trapped, they are shot and they are left to rot.”
Ross has long railed against the Department of Conservation and its officials. He ran for state Senate last year but lost the GOP primary.
At the same time lawmakers approved the feral hog program, they removed funding to let Missourians on the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program buy fresh produce at farmers markets. The House had previously set aside $100,000 to create the program.
House Democrats objected to both moves.
Then-state Rep. Greg Razer, D-Kansas City, said Missouri’s feral hog problem is real, but that the money for the WIC program was a tiny sliver of the budget.
“We did find the money to have people shoot wild feral hogs, cut them up and give that to poor people,” he said.