Appeals Court rules against DNR in invasive swine case

 

Marquette, Mich. — Matt Tingstad watched his pets “Gretchen” and “Princess Goreya” chug through the snow.

“Minus 18, -19, -20 degrees, they are out there just having a blast,” the Ontonagon County resident said.

“You can pet them and scratch them and stuff. They’re like a dog that you have and know their sweet spot.”

But these are not dogs. The hint is in princess’ last name, Goreya, phonetically meant to sound like “gore you.”

Princess and Gretchen – now naturally deceased – were invasive pigs, according to the DNR. They are now a testament to the clock ticking in a courtroom.

In a significant victory for Baraga County pig farmer Roger Turunen, who sold the pigs to Tingstad, a county judge recently ruled the DNR’s criteria for invasive pigs was scientifically unreliable.

The decision was made after a state appeals court upheld the constitutionality of a DNR order involving invasive species, but left the local court to determine whether specific animals violated the order. Circuit Judge Charles Goodwin ruled they did not.

“Appropriately, the judge ruled that the science being used by the DNR was unreliable in this case,” said Glenn Smith, attorney for pig producer Turunen of Baraga County. “I think they are going to have difficulty proceeding after this.”

DNR spokesman Ed Golder dismissed that assertion.

“We disagree,” Golder said. “We are appealing Judge Goodman’s order and we believe we will prevail.”

Golder noted a Marquette County judge ruled in October that the DNR’s identification process was inadequate to determine Russian boars. A rancher there, who bought many of the pigs from Turunen, was fined $2,500 in October for 10 pigs found to be invasive. He also was ordered by Circuit Judge Thomas Solka to destroy any others he owns.

The late-November ruling involving Turunen raises questions about what exactly constitutes a Russian bore and its many hybrids. It capped a four-year battle involving Turunen’s 1,000-pig Baraga County farm.

His Hogan Hogs, a hybrid breed, are sold to hunting ranches, other farmers and culinary customers.

In 2011, the DNR issued an order designating certain exotic hogs as a banned invasive species. Physical distinctions from domestic hogs were enumerated.

For example, the DNR said hybrids’ bristle tips are lighter in color than the rest of the hair shaft. There is a dark “point” coloration of the snout, ears, legs and tail. They are dark brown to black in color. Tails are typically held straight, and ears are erect, folded or floppy.

“Domestic hog producers panicked,” Smith said. The order exempted some farmers, but not others, and was more arbitrary than definitive, he said.

Oddly, the criterion enumerated by the DNR no longer exists. It was retracted during the appeal process, due to “confusion” among the public..

Given all pigs share a single ancestry and many of the same physical features, Smith said enforcement of the invasive species order would result in the “unfettered, unlimited discretion” of the DNR.

“They told Mr. Turunen, ‘We’re not going to exempt you. We believe your animals are illegal,’” Smith said.

Possession of a banned animal is a felony carrying up to two years in prison, plus fines.

The DNR’s greatest concern is that escaped penned boars will transition to wild boar, causing serious environmental damage.

Texas and Florida have the most feral pigs of any state, up to 1 million in Texas, half that in Florida. They are prolific breeders and their rutting and wallowing damages both land and water.

In Michigan, more than 340 feral swine have been spotted in 72 of Michigan’s 83 counties and 286 have been reported killed, according to the DNR. A sow can have two litters a year of four to six piglets.

It is estimated feral swine in Michigan currently number between 1,000 and 3,000.

Hog producers took the state to court. Initially, another Gogebic judge sided with the state. But the appeal, while upholding the constitutionality of the DNR to regulate such matters, was returned to the local level to determine if Turunen’s hogs were in fact Russian boar.

Baraga County Circuit Judge Goodman ruled the department’s criteria were too vague and sided with Turunen.

Efforts used by the DNR to distinguish the invasive species are “not based on reliable principles and methods … and thus the testimony offered does not satisfactorily establish the proposition asserted,” Goodman said in the ruling.

Tingstad, the recently elected prosecutor of neighboring Iron County in Wisconsin, is pleased with the ruling.

“A pig is a pig. If a pig escapes, after long enough it’s going to adapt,” he said.

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