Piggy Goes to Town
Tim Scholz pulls his white pickup off to the side of the road in rural Ellis County. He's 30 miles south of Dallas, out in hog-hunting country. He gets out, jumps onto the flatbed of his truck and scans the horizon with a pair of Bushnell binoculars. Rain has been falling all day, and Scholz doesn't like the idea of driving his truck back through the muddy cornfield to check his traps.
He drives his truck a short way down a bumpy, muddy path and then stops. He steps out of the vehicle, straps on a leather gun belt and drops a silver .44 Magnum pistol into the holster. In his line of work, he can never be too careful. On more than one occasion an angry boar has come charging at him out of the bushes, dislocating Scholz's shoulder or knee or tearing open his flesh with sharp tusks.
Scholz traps wild hogs for a living. He traps in Ellis, Navarro and Hill counties. He has even trapped hogs that tore up a homeowner's lawn and sprinkler system in a subdivision in Arlington. In the last two and a half years alone, he has captured 3,500 hogs in North Texas.
Hog problems are nothing new in Texas, but over the last 10 years, as the feral pig population has multiplied, they have begun to inch ever closer to suburban areas. Hogs have been spotted along the Trinity River bottoms and at the National Cemetery in Grand Prairie, where they rooted up a good swath of sod.
Experts say there's no way to put a number on the hog population in Texas with any real accuracy, but Billy Higginbotham, Texas Cooperative Extension's Wildlife and Fisheries specialist in Overton, estimates that of the approximately 4 million feral hogs nationwide, somewhere between 1 and 2 million are in Texas, meaning that one-quarter to one-half of all the wild hogs in the country live here.
Wherever these herds of roaming pigs go, they leave a path of destruction. They consume native vegetation and destroy the nests and eat the eggs of ground-nesting birds such as quail and turkey. They have been known to kill pets, calves, lambs and goats. They also carry many diseases such as pseudo-rabies and brucellosis, which can be passed on to livestock and, in some cases, humans.
They inflict the most damage, however, on crops. Hogs can wipe out an entire grain crop in a single evening. They come into a freshly seeded field and move up and down the furrows gobbling up seed. Higginbotham says that feral hogs do at least $52 million worth of agricultural damage annually. Landowners in Texas pay around $7 million annually in efforts to reduce the hog population.
And the problem is not just restricted to rural areas. Hogs have also moved into several areas in and around Dallas County. Robert Stalbaum, a biologist with Texas Wildlife Damage Management Service, said that he receives six or seven calls a month regarding hog damage in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Homeowners have wakened to find their entire yards tilled by the hogs, he says. The hogs can also tear up irrigation systems, which can cost anywhere from a couple hundred dollars to more than $1,000 to replace, depending on the size of the yard.
Homeowners who call their local animal control are referred to Stalbaum. Stalbaum finds the trail of the hogs and tracks the herd, which usually leads back to a natural water source, such as a creek or river. He then sets up traps with soured corn or rice as bait. Trapped hogs are killed on the spot and taken to a dumpsite.
Texas Wildlife Damage Management Service currently charges $125 a day or $2,500 for five weeks to set hog traps in an area.
In 2000, wild hogs caused significant damage to the Fort Worth Nature Center and Refuge. Signs of the destructive swine were found throughout the 4,000-acre wildlife park. In the wetland areas the hogs ate and uprooted vegetation, which caused a reduction in food and shelter for other species. They tore up the soil, leaving furrows up to a foot deep in some places, and on one occasion, while a woman was walking her dog, a sow with piglets felt threatened and attacked the dog. The dog survived but was badly injured.
While the wildlife preserve wanted to deal with the problem in the most humane way possible, hogs are a disease-carrying animal, hell-bent on destruction and alien to the native environment. Left with no other options, workers at the refuge trapped and euthanized the hogs. The carcasses replenished the soil and fed the buzzards. The hog population at the nature center is now under control.
"Just like every other time we come into conflict with a species, there's going to have to be a victor and a loser," says Rob Denkhaus, the natural resource manager for the Fort Worth Nature Center and Refuge. "It's just going to be another battle, and hogs are a worthy adversary in terms of their ability to adapt to whatever's thrown at them."
Brett Johnson, an urban wildlife biologist in Dallas County with the Texas Park and Wildlife Department, says he can foresee Dallas County having increased hog troubles in the next two to 10 years.
Back in Ellis County, Scholz heads down a sloppy trail to check a trap. Thick mud cakes his boots. About 100 yards ahead a coyote dashes across the path and disappears into the cornfield. When Scholz reaches the trap he sees that it is empty. He looks around in the mud and notices a series of tell-tale hoof-prints in and around the cage. But nothing has disturbed the trip-wire. "These hogs are smarter than dogs," Scholz says. "They're not easy to catch."
Scholz must check his traps on a regular basis, because hogs can easily die inside of them, especially in the summer. Pigs do not have sweat glands; they pant through their mouths like dogs and can die of heat exhaustion within a few hours.
For Scholz, a dead pig means no money. His livelihood depends on his ability to deliver live hogs to slaughter. His go to a slaughterhouse in Fort Worth called Frontier Meats, which sells the meat all over the world. Some even ends up in restaurants in Europe.
As the day wears on Scholz continues checking his traps and restocking them with soured corn. Water from deep puddles splashes across the windshield of his pickup, and mud spatters its side mirrors as he goes to inspect his final four traps. "It's kind of like the lottery," he says of his job. "Maybe you'll get that 380-pound pig." Scholz's personal best catch was a 376-pound barrow hog. He once caught 21 hogs in one 5-by-8-foot trap. "The hogs were literally standing on top of one another," he says.
Today, though, he only manages to bag a pair of three week-old hogs. They will fetch a mere $5 at the slaughterhouse. It may seem cruel to think of killing baby animals, but Scholz says he's doing everyone a service. "The problem is that we're dealing with damage control," he says. "It's not that you like it, but you can't afford to let them go out there and then a year later they've got babies of their own. The farmers would be really upset with me if I let them go, because it costs them so much money every year."
By definition, Scholz is a hog hunter, but he doesn't chase after hogs for sport, and he doesn't like to see them suffer. The way he sees it, hog hunting is a job, and in a way, it's also a public service. Every hog he traps is one less hog tearing up someone's lawn or rooting up some farmer's field of corn.
The only bad thing about his job, he says, is the smell. Actually, it only bothers his wife. "It smells like money to me," he says with a laugh.
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