When state Rep. Sid Miller, R-Stephenville, introduced a bill last legislative session to allow licensed hunters to shoot feral hogs from helicopters, Texas lawmakers jokingly passed out “pork chopper” buttons.
They're not laughing anymore.
More than 2 million strong statewide, hogs are increasingly encroaching on residential communities -- destroying any lawn or fence in their path and, with sharp tusks, occasionally injuring an unlucky person in their way. Even urban lawmakers are now taking the threat seriously.
“They're now uprooting tombstones in the city cemeteries, golf courses and coming into residential areas,” said Miller, R-Stephenville, who successfully shepherded the bill through the state House and Senate. “What we're trying to do is control the population.”
If, or when, the governor signs the bill into law, hog hunting from helicopters — a practice currently allowed only for some landowners — would be legal for any licensed hunter willing to buy a seat in the air. Texas lawmakers say the legislation could curb the $400 million in agricultural damage feral hogs cause annually and deter their spread into urban areas.
(Check out our analysis of Texas Parks and Wildlife data to track demand for helicopter hunting by landowners, how many hogs Texans have already killed from the sky, and landowners' reported reasons for needing to kill feral hogs.)
Feral hogs cause extensive damage to agriculture and the native ecosystem, say biologists at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. The biologists maintain that sport hunting is beneficial because it brings in revenue for landowners, helps control overpopulation and, well, the meat is tasty.
They have almost nothing nice to say about the feral hogs: The animals uproot crops, pastures for cattle feed, fences and the native habitats of ground-nesting birds and reptiles. And the hogs will eat almost anything: corn seedlings, peanut plants, peach trees, bird eggs and baby calves. They can also spread disease to domestic pigs and humans, and they foul watering holes.
James F. Stone, a rancher in Lockhart, estimated that he had killed 500 hogs over the last three years on his property — 80 since January. And they are vicious.
“They're dog killers,” Stone said. “That's what we call them.”
A few of his kills have weighed more than 600 pounds.
As a non-native species, hogs can be hunted year-round in Texas with no limit, although a hunting permit is required. Texas landowners commonly capitalize on hog invasions by selling permission to hunt them — from the ground — on their land.
The helicopter bill would allow licensed hunters to pay for a helicopter and, with the landowners' permission, hunt hogs and coyotes from the sky.
Left unchecked, the number of feral hogs in Texas could increase 18 to 20 percent per year, said Dr. Billy Higginbotham, a professor at the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension. In five years, hog numbers could double.
The common — and illegal — practice of releasing feral and domestic hogs for off-season sport hunting, combined with hogs' increasing access to food left by ranchers for deer, has “created a perfect storm” for a population boom, Higginbotham said.
Jay Smith, a pilot and owner of Smith Helicopters, said he had seen a boom in property damage, too. “I've seen holes that they've done that you can bury a four-wheeler in,” said Smith, who has flown helicopters for 33 years, specializing in land surveying, cattle management and predator control.
Smith supports Miller's bill but said safety is a concern. “What we have to watch out for is the people that get in the helicopter with us and the way they handle the guns,” he said.
Prices for aerial hunting trips range from $300 to $600 per hour. Other species, like coyotes, can already be hunted by helicopter. Demand is greatest in South Texas, where hunters can easily aim over the open rural land as helicopters fly slowly and low to the ground.
Although using poison to control hog population is illegal in the state, the Texas Department of Agriculture is financing research on a toxin used to control feral hogs in Australia. Justin Foster, a researcher at the Kerr Wildlife Management Area in south central Texas, said Australian research showed that hogs were “uniquely sensitive” to sodium nitrite, and he added that researchers were investigating its effects on nontarget species in Texas, like deer and raccoons.
“But you also need to think safety,” Foster said. “Does it kill everything else that consumes it, or does it not?”