TRAVERSE CITY - A northern Michigan farmer who defied a state ban on exotic hogs is no longer threatened with $700,000 in fines, but a dispute still rages over whether the animals are a menace, as regulators believe.
Mark Baker, who raises livestock on an 80-acre farm in Missaukee County, sued the Department of Natural Resources over its designation of certain swine as invasive species that are off-limits in Michigan. The case was scheduled for trial March 11. Instead, it ended last week when state attorneys said Baker had gotten rid of the offending animals. The judge then tossed Baker's suit, saying there was nothing more to litigate.
The abrupt conclusion left unresolved the invasive species order's legality, as well as whether the DNR is applying it properly, said farmers and game ranchers who are contesting it. They hope three other cases pending in the Upper Peninsula will answer those questions.
In this April 18, 2012, photo, Mark Baker feeds bread to exotic swine on his farm near McBain, Mich. After seeking $700,000 in fines from Baker, the state has abruptly dropped the case, acknowledging that Baker wasn’t violating the law by raising Russian boars and other exotic breeds of swine. At the same time, Baker’s lawsuit against the Michigan Department of Natural Resources was thrown out, raising questions about the status of other pending cases against farmers and ranchers who raise the animals that state biologists and the domestic hog industry consider a menace. (AP photo)
Those farmers and ranchers argue that the order unfairly targets their animals, which are popular with adventure hunters and foodies who savor the tasty meat. State regulators say the hogs are escaping, breeding prolifically and damaging crops and woodlands.
"We've contended from Day One that a pig is a pig," said Joseph O'Leary, an attorney representing the Upper Peninsula producers. "A pig behind a fence is a good pig. A pig out in the wild is a bad one. It's the state of being feral that's the problem, not the color or shape or size of the pig."
The DNR agrees that any swine running loose can be harmful but disagrees that all are created equal. The policy targets varieties commonly known as Eurasian or Russian boars, or hybrids exhibiting the same physical features, such as coat color patterns and skeletal structure.
These sharp-tusked hogs, which typically weigh 100-200 pounds but are sometimes larger, are notorious for tearing up the ground when rooting for food, causing erosion and weakening plants. Their tendency to wallow in muddy shallows damages ponds and streams. The pork industry says exotic swine carry diseases that can spread to domestic livestock.
"You just have to see what has happened in other states where these animals have become established on the landscape to know how destructive they are," DNR spokesman Ed Golder said. Some Southern states, such as Texas, have all but abandoned hope of eradicating them.
The DNR puts Michigan's population at 1,000 to 3,000 but acknowledges it's a rough estimate. They've been spotted across the state but some of the highest numbers are in central Lower Peninsula counties such as Mecosta, Gratiot, Saginaw and Midland, said Pat Rusz, a biologist with the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy.
"The epicenter of those hog densities are right where there was a game ranch or another facility from which they escaped," Rusz said. "The game ranch industry kept saying, 'We can keep these things in; we just need better fences.' But problems occurred even when you had excellent fences, because people make mistakes and these hogs get out."
Skeptics say feral hog numbers are exaggerated. But Pete Butchko, state director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services, said regardless of how many there are, it's time to stop them.
"Five years from now it won't be any easier," he said.
After issuing its order in December 2010, the DNR said dozens of farmers and ranchers complied. Baker was among the few holdouts, insisting his animals weren't escaping and accusing the department of kowtowing to big agriculture. The DNR eventually threatened to fine him $700,000 - or $10,000 for each of the 70 hogs on his property at the time.
Baker lost most of his customers and struggled to pay his bills. But he was determined to keep battling and said he was surprised during a pretrial hearing last week when DNR attorneys told the judge they considered him no longer in violation because his remaining animals were not pure Russian or Eurasian boars, but hybrids.
Baker insisted he didn't surrender and still has hogs that could be targeted under the order. His attorney, Michelle Halley, said it appeared the DNR realized the policy was flawed and sought a face-saving way to avoid losing at trial.
Golder, the DNR spokesman, acknowledged Baker's hybrids were part Russian boars but said they didn't have the distinctive features the department considered indicative of problem animals.
"We have not backed off one iota from the order," he said. "We view this as a great thing - Mr. Baker has come into compliance with the law."
Meanwhile, a circuit judge in Marquette County is expected to rule this month on requests by three hog operations to strike down the invasive species order for vagueness and other flaws. If the judge declines, their challenges will go to trial.
Glenn Smith, an attorney working with O'Leary, said the outcome of the Baker case could help their clients.
"If his animals are suddenly not prohibited, I think the DNR will have trouble saying ours are prohibited," Smith said.
Follow John Flesher on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnFlesher.