By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Domestic hogs become feral after as few as three generations spent in the wild, during which they undergo a werewolf-like transformation. They grow bristly hair and curling tusks, become almost exclusively nocturnal when hunted hard, and develop a thick plate of gristle on their shoulders and sides tough enough to deflect small-caliber bullets.
Feral hogs multiply faster than rabbits, spawning hundreds of offspring during an average life span of 15 to 25 years. Sows can produce two litters a year, with as many as a dozen piglets per litter, and begin breeding at just 6 months old. They adapt to most any climate and have no natural predators. Nationwide, since 1990, the wild hog population has more than doubled and spread from 19 to 35 states.
Today, Texas is home to some 2 million feral hogs--more than any other state and nearly half the total population in the entire country. They're most densely populated in East, Southeast and South Texas, though their numbers have increased dramatically in recent years in the central and northern parts of the state. They live in nearly all 254 counties but are less prevalent in the more arid sections of West Texas along the New Mexico border.
An average mature feral hog weighs 75 to 150 pounds. A trophy-size hog prized by hunters ranges from 250 to 450 pounds. And then there are the freakishly large hogs, which tend to incite national media frenzies. In 2003, an 800-pound hog was killed near New Waverly, 60 miles north of Houston. That matches the actual weight of the notorious Hogzilla, the giant hog shot in Georgia that became the subject of a popular National Geographic documentary aired last spring. Several months after Hogzilla, a central Florida man gunned down an alleged 1,100-pound beast dubbed Hog Kong.
Feral hogs, regardless of their size, are enormously destructive. In a matter of hours, they can root up several acres of grain crops, destroying fields of corn, maize, rice and sorghum. They kill pets and small livestock, including calves, goats, lambs and fawns, as well as ground-nesting birds such as turkey and quail. They're also major disease carriers, capable of destroying entire herds of cattle with pseudorabies virus and swine brucellosis, which causes abortions and infertility. Every year they cause more than $50 million in damages across Texas, according to a 2004 landowner survey conducted by the Texas Cooperative Extension Service, a division of Texas A&M University.
In just the last few months, feral hogs have excavated soccer fields at George Bush Park in west Harris County; destroyed wetlands created in northeast Harris County to offset new development; and cost homeowners in Clear Lake, Conroe, Humble, Katy, Magnolia and The Woodlands thousands of dollars in landscaping fees. They run rampant in Brazos Bend State Park, according to Wes Masur, director of law enforcement for the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife. A couple years ago in Fairfield Lake State Park, 90 miles southeast of Dallas, a 150-pound sow attacked a little girl riding her bicycle in the camping loop. The girl, who escaped unscathed, initially thought she was being chased by a bear.
While nobody believes Texas will ever get rid of feral hogs, state officials and several counties have taken some creative measures to control the population. Earlier this year the Texas Department of Agriculture gave $500,000 to Texas A&M and Texas Tech universities to assess feral hog damage to crops and to research reproductive control methods. In 2003, officials in Van Zandt County, 60 miles east of Dallas, instituted a bounty, paying trappers $7 for every pair of matched hog ears. In 14 months, the county doled out more than $14,000 for 2,062 sets of ears, according to Brian Cummins, who oversaw the program.
The state employs three techniques for killing feral hogs. They're baited into steel traps with shelled corn, then shot; lured into neck snares that can tighten and asphyxiate them when they squirm; and, most extravagant, shot down from low-flying helicopters with 12-gauge semiautomatic shotguns. The state operates two helicopters and two small planes for predatory animal control. Historically these were used solely to kill coyotes in West Texas and in the Hill Country. About 10 years ago the state began employing the aircraft to hunt wild hogs.
Just last month state workers gunned down 320 hogs during a four-day hunt in Matagorda County along the Gulf Coast. In 2005 the state killed more than 11,000 hogs. One-third of these were caught in neck snares; half were taken in aerial gunning missions. A ground crew often coordinates with the pilots, scaring packs of hogs out of heavy cover and into open fields. The carcasses are left in the field to rot. "We try to finish 'em off," says Texas Wildlife Services district supervisor Gary McEwen, "and let 'em lie for the vultures."
The state also hosts workshops in which landowners are taught how to trap feral hogs and sell them to USDA-approved slaughterhouses, where the hogs are killed using the captive-bolt method, essentially a pistol shot to the skull. These plants pay as much as 25 cents per pound plus a $5 head bonus. A 200-pound hog brings $55. Feral hogs are said to have a lean, mildly gamy flavor and are considered a delicacy in high-end restaurants on the East and West Coasts as well as overseas. "They end up on white-clothed tables across Europe," says Dick Koehler, vice president of Frontier Meats in Fort Worth, which sells the wild hog meat to distribution centers in Italy and Switzerland.