Across the United States, hogs and hunters fight a hidden war. One side wields rifles, machine guns, helicopters, poison, and traps. The other side is winning.
Feral hogs arrived with Christopher Columbus and the conquistadors in the 1500s. They were left behind so that future expeditions could find edible animals when they arrived.
As an invasive species, hogs were incredibly successful. But their numbers only really took off in the past 50 years, experts say. They may now be impossible to eradicate.
“They’ll be around for the Second Coming,” said Allen Williams, owner of the Dos Plumas Hunting Ranch in Texas.
The worst danger from hogs isn’t the destruction of crops, environmental damage, or even the occasional attack on people. It’s the chance that they’ll catch African Swine Fever (ASF), an incurable disease that recently resulted in the death of half of China’s domestic pig stock—about 200 million pigs worth $100 billion.
If ASF enters wild hog populations, they’ll still hold the disease, even if U.S. pig farmers kill their entire stock of pigs, scientists say. Then, the same thing will happen again.
Hog scientists describe the creatures with phrases that feel appropriate to the movie “Alien.” Hogs are “the perfect invasive species,” according to hog scientist John Mayer.
“They are the ultimate survivor. They are the classic ecological generalists,” Mayer said. “They can pretty much live anywhere, from the frozen Canadian prairie provinces down to the hot humid rainforest of Central and South America, and all parts in between. They can pretty much eat anything. They have a very high reproductive potential.”
An individual hog reaches maturity in three to five months. From that point, it can produce 18 piglets every two years. Hogs can weigh up to 700 pounds and live in “sounders” of five to 50 animals. Their size and numbers leave them with few natural predators.
Since the 1990s, the U.S. wild hog population has grown exponentially, Mayer said.
Their spread played out like a horror movie. Government gaming departments encouraged recreational hog hunting. Then, hunters transported and released the beasts into the wild. The warnings from increasingly desperate scientists went unheeded as the hogs multiplied.
“We tried to spread the word,” Mayer said. “’The pigs are coming! The pigs are coming!’ we said.”
Everyone ignored them, he said.
Then the pigs did what they do best. Today, they cause $2.5 billion in agricultural damage yearly, spread the human-transmissible diseases brucellosis and trichinosis, and damage the environment by affecting native bird species.
The Pig Plague
African swine fever is likely the world’s worst pig disease, Mayer said. There’s no cure, and it bleeds pigs to death in days. It can spread to pigs, even through cooked or cured ham.
In 2018, African swine fever spread to China’s livestock. The government ordered the death of all pigs likely to have the disease.
At the worst of the fever, China killed more than 200 million of its 440 million domestic pigs, according to Mayer. The total loss may be more than $100 billion, about 1 percent of China’s entire economy.
Mass slaughter was the only way to stop the fever, he said. But the cruel execution of this order sometimes resembled a dress rehearsal for genocide.
In some instances, the Chinese Communist Party dug canyons with bulldozers, herded hundreds of pigs into them, and barricaded the exits, Mayer said. Workers shoveled down caustic lye. Then the bulldozers closed the gorges over the chemically burned and still-squealing pigs.
“Supposedly, they’ve stopped doing that,” Mayer said.
If the swine fever reaches the United States, U.S. pig farms will face similarly large-scale losses, he said. They’ll also face a high chance of the fever repeating.
Feral hogs function as a reservoir for swine disease, according to Mayer. They mix with domestic pigs. But unlike domestic pigs, they can’t be vaccinated, monitored, or slaughtered.
“We’ve never been able to deal with pathogens well in our wild pig population,” Mayer said.
The fewer feral hogs the United States has, the safer its domestic pigs will be from African swine fever.
Most experts say that to maintain current hog numbers, hunters must kill between 60 percent and 80 percent of hogs every year. But hunters are lucky to kill a mere 30 percent of feral hogs per year.
The best tools in the current hunter’s arsenal are trapping, shooting, and helicopter machine-gun attacks.
Trapping hogs requires a special sort of patience, according to Texas hog exterminator Edward Dickey. His business, Texas Wild Hog Control, has been trapping hogs for five years.
Hogs don’t trust a trap when it appears randomly in the woods, he said. Instead, hog hunters build a giant trap corral piece by piece over several weeks.
“The mistake that a lot of people make is that they’ll just trap the first group that comes in,” Dickey said. “When they do that, they’re just trapping the younger, less intelligent ones. They just reinforced the intelligence of all the other hogs.”
Perhaps the greatest weapon hogs have is their intelligence, according to Dickey.
“You get one chance to trap them right,” he said. “And if you screw that up, then you’re going to have to try something else.”
On the animal intelligence scale, hogs rank fifth—below dolphins and apes, but above dogs.
Dickey said he uses a video system that alerts him to movement in a trap and allows him to close its gate with a text. It’s more likely to catch all of the hogs in a trap with such an approach. But sometimes, it doesn’t work.
“We are at the point where we have completed the corral. And they will disappear,” he said. “They somehow know that the corral is complete.”
Even when things go according to plan, Dickey mops up the cleverest hogs with gunfire. He can hit a hog at 200 yards, he said.
He’s one of a vast army of hog hunters using an ever-expanding quantity of weapons to drive back the tusked menace.
Rod Pinkston, founder of hog extermination company Jager Pro, is the mind behind many of hog hunters’ best weapons. He patented the phone-activated trap system that many hog exterminators now use.
Pinkston spent 24 years in the U.S. Army and said he attacks the hog problem from a military angle. Farmer-style damage management doesn’t cut it when it comes to the world’s fifth-smartest animal.
“From a soldier’s standpoint, if you let half the enemy in an ambush get away and inform the enemy chain of command, you’ll never ambush them again,” he said.
For Pinkston and the veterans at his company, hogs are an enemy that must be wiped out.
But doing so will take a lot of firepower. With 2 million hogs in the state, Texas has the largest U.S. feral hog population.
In Texas, anyone can hunt hogs with any weapon—except poison—at any time, according to Dickey. Videos online show hunters using anything from explosives to knives.
“You could run them over with your truck if you wanted to,” he said. “And that would not be considered animal cruelty.”
Many people want to shoot machine guns from helicopters. This activity was legalized by Texas Gov. Rick Perry through legislation nicknamed the “pork chopper bill.”
“We’ll supply the machine guns, you bring the trigger finger,” pork chopper company HeliBacon’s website reads. Tourists sometimes pay rates of more than $4,000 to take part in the activity.
About 300 Texas companies enjoy success because of the state’s hog-hunting laws, and the money helps farmers as well, said Michael Bodenchuk, the state director of Texas Wildlife Services.
“Landowners and their individual operators are making a lot of money off of pigs,” Bodenchuk said. “Some of the helicopter companies are charging $1,500 an hour to go shoot pigs out of a helicopter.
“Good for them. Anybody who kills a pig in Texas is a friend of mine.”
As usual, hogs have adapted to this tactic. Most hogs now graze at night to avoid hunters.
To continue the hog war, hunters buy $4,000 thermal scopes on silenced rifles. The same sense of power flying in pork choppers now stalks by night with geared-up hunters.
Pinkston said he was the first man to use a thermal scope to shoot a hog on YouTube and television.
“We use night shooting and thermal shooting, especially in crop production areas because you could kill some pigs, but you also change the behavior of the others,” Bodenchuk said.
Getting pigs to run from crops is a victory, he said.
It’s currently illegal to use poisons on hogs, but laboratories employed by the federal government are eagerly concocting hog-specific toxins, Bodenchuk said.
One poison relies on a compound usually used to cure bacon. Another relies on the drug warfarin, which is used as a heart medicine for humans. Another proposed method would rely on feeding hogs contraceptives.
All of those plans face public pushback and are still illegal, according to Bodenchuk. People don’t like the idea of putting chemicals into meat that many people eat, even if labs say the chemicals are safe for people.
Warfarin kills dogs and cats as well.
“Mathematically, a pig that’s been poisoned by Warfarin doesn’t pose a risk to somebody who’s eating it,” Bodenchuk said. “But that doesn’t mean they’re not legitimately concerned about it.”
Hogs in the House
Ironically, making hog hunting easier for tourists has also made it harder to entirely exterminate hogs.
Hundreds of Texas businesses now have a stake in the continued existence of hogs, even though hog damage takes more money than hog tourism brings in, Bodenchuk said.
Unlike most hog experts, he believes that Texas kills enough hogs to put a dent in the hog problem year after year
Still, Bodenchuk must wrestle with a political world filled with hog allies, including both animal rights activists and hunters who want hogs alive for sport.
“Everybody has an opinion on it,” he said. “I’ve never seen a wildlife conflict problem that has so many stakeholders. Watershed people, farmers, hunters, landowners, even public safety people. Everybody has a stake in this.”
Some people feel conflicted. Texas rancher Bruce Hunnicut said he fought feral hogs for years before admitting that he couldn’t beat them. They were too resilient, he said.
So he joined them.
“You just couldn’t eradicate them,” Hunnicut said.
He now runs White Oak Outfitters, a hog hunting ranch.
If someone had a way to kill feral hogs, Hunnicut said it wouldn’t bother him. He would continue raising his own feral hogs for hunting.
“They’re on my property,” he said. “And we’re killing them on our property.”
Conflicting laws surround hogs in many of the 35 states in which they live.
In Hawaii, hogs are a game animal on state land with a set hunting season and limits, according to Mayer. But on federal land in Hawaii, hogs are a pest with no special protections.
“What else out there is like that?” he asked. “It’s a complete conundrum.”
Even if everyone agreed to kill all of the hogs, the task might not be possible. If even a small proportion of hogs survived an all-out attempt at their destruction, they would multiply so quickly that the current hog situation would return, according to Mayer.
“Even if you’ve got the government paying for it, it’s very expensive to get down to that last pig,” he said.
But in the current situation, the African swine fever threat continues unabated.
The prospect of the disease arriving in the United States worries farmers, Texas Farm Bureau Associate Director Tracy Tomascik said.
“It’s a scary thought,” Tomascik said. “That stuff spreads so easily, it’s really hard to comprehend. And the virus stays viable for a very long time in things like the leftover grain from a feeder.”
Although Texas isn’t a major pig farming state, its pig farmers still dread the virus, which could wipe out U.S. pig production.
For pig farming states such as Iowa and North Carolina, the problem would be even worse, according to Tomascik.
To keep ASF from reaching the United States, the government has created a formidable defense. No pig feed or minerals that hogs need can come into the country from places with African Swine Fever, he said.
Pork imports from infected countries are restricted, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The government has wound a wall of porcine protection around the border. But this seemingly formidable wall has so many holes that the swine fever’s arrival is only a matter of time, according to Mayer.
When customs officials confiscate Chinese raw pork products from returning tourists at the San Francisco International Airport, they throw the meat in the garbage, he said.
The garbage goes to the Guadalupe landfill in San Jose, California. Hogs scavenge the dump. And they eat anything.
Correction: The previous version of this article used an incorrect name for African swine fever in several instances. The Epoch Times regrets the error.