Biologists, hunters anticipate local hog problem
By WAYLON CUNNINGHAM
The first sign that they have arrived is evidence of rooting. The fields look tilled as though a tractor plowed it, although it makes any actual use of farm equipment dangerous.
Craters appear up to five feet wide and three feet deep. Then, tracks and scat everywhere. Crop fields are devoured, landscapes trampled, and native wildlife slowly squeezed out as the oak and pecan trees they rely on have their roots dug up and torn.
This invasive species emerges only at night in this region, but when they come, the warning signs are as clear as day. The hogs are here.
Last year’s wet and agreeable weather has local hog experts anticipating a continued boom in statewide hog numbers, which could soon reach Liberty Hill.
“The population is exploding exponentially because Mother Nature provided perfect conditions for all wildlife. This year, feral hogs can raise all 12 babies, instead of just five or six,” reports professional wildlife biologist Macy Ledbetter.
Feral hogs, first introduced to the region by Spanish explorers and later multiplied by 19th Century farmers and hunters, cause nearly $400 million in crop damage every year. Biologists consider them one of the most destructive invasive species in the United States today.
“In two years, two hogs can become 250,” said Jeremy Stillman, a professional helicopter pilot who flies for a hog exterminating company.
With their rapid reproduction rate, endless appetite, and lack of natural predators, feral hogs are not only a headache to farmers, but a death sentence for native species whose vegetative habitats provide easy food for the hogs, if they themselves are not prey.
“As a biologist, we treat feral hogs as predators and pests,” said Ledbetter. “They’re opportunistic omnivores. Plant or animal, dead or alive. They will search out, kill and destroy. Quail, quail nests, turkey, turkey nests. Small game and lizards, rats and mice. Grass roots and roadkill. Crops and worms. Occasionally they’ll even take a deer or fawn.”
He attributes the uptick in feral hog numbers first to last winter’s soil moisture, which came after a nearly six-year dry spell. The successful crops and hay meadows this year gave rise to an abundance of the hog’s preferred food sources, particularly quail, mice and turkey.
“The world is his buffet. That’s why the feral hog is such a resilient animal,” he said.
Hog hunting enthusiast Chris Kidd, who hunts nearly every weekend, said the corn fields in particular provide the disease-carrying creature with a comfortable breeding ground. During the drought, many farmers had been cutting their corn crops early. But this year, he said, those same farmers are harvesting up to two whole grow seasons. These tall crops are not only food for the pigs, but a ready daytime hiding place.
“We’ve taught the hogs to hide from us during the daytime. They’re smart creatures,” he said.
Traditionally, summer provides a time for farmers to nip any budding hog populations on their property, as the hot days force the hogs, which lack the ability to sweat, out of hiding and into ponds, where they cool off.
Ledbetter says this summer was different.
“This summer, Joe Rancher didn’t see that many hogs in the pond. They were just growing unbothered, in hiding. Then suddenly, tons of hogs. That didn’t happen overnight.”
A meek, mild and wet summer meant that not only did hogs have tall vegetation to hide in, but with ample food and water, they never had to travel far in the open.
Liberty Hill does not currently have a significant hog problem. But many local experts and farmers expect one, as the statewide rise in hog numbers combined with Liberty Hill’s changing character spells a potential for rampant and unchecked growth.
J.T. English, a ranch manager in Liberty Hill, says that with the current development it is “only a matter of time” before the hogs find a home here. Contrary to the popular image, hogs are not limited to rural areas.
“As ranches get smaller and people put on less hunting pressure, hog numbers are going to grow here in Liberty Hill,” Ledbetter said.
Kidd reported finding the tell-tale sign of tilled up fields in nearby metro regions like Austin and Temple, where hogs have traditionally not been a problem.
Stillman, whose company does nearly 55 helicopter-hunting missions every year, said two of his men found hundreds of hogs in nearby Bertram, a five-minute flight from Liberty Hill.
The Texas Parks & Wildlife Department estimates an excess population of 1.5 million feral hogs in the state, although precise counts and increases are hard to come by due to the creature’s rapid reproduction and propensity to hide.
“It’s fair to quadruple the numbers [from A&M’s annual hog report], since farmers don’t report all instances. They just get out there and fix it,” Stillman said.
Texas House Bill 716, passed in 2011 and known as the “Pork Chop Law,” allows hunters and farmers to use almost any means necessary to combat the hog infestation, including the ability to shoot wild hogs from the air, as Stillman’s business provides.
“In Texas, we’re very blessed [with control measure laws],” Ledbetter said. “We can trap them, track them, rope them, kill them with a spear or a knife. We can use dogs and night hunting. There’s no season, no bag limits. There’s almost no rules or regulations for feral hogs except permission for private property. Texas Parks and Wildlife saw that we have a hog problem, and they wanted to give every possible way to control their numbers.”
Ledbetter continued that helicopters are the best way to eradicate a pig problem, provided that the landscape is open enough.
Kidd, who often uses a helicopter in his hunts, said that although some consider the use of air weaponry to lack sportsmanship, that the intention is not sport.
“We’re not hunting. We’re eradicating,” he said.
“We’re the terminator. We come in on suppression and eradication,” Stillman added. “These hogs are outbreeding every living thing, including mice and people.”
With prices for helicopter rentals ranging between $700-$800 per hour however, not all have the option to use this approach.
Ledbetter, who reports that his team kills anywhere between 1,200 to 1,500 hogs a year, said a 12 gauge buckshot remains his preferred, “old fashioned” choice.
“Some people like the big black rifles, but I’m here to do business, not use ammunition.”