Tadpole's Outdoor Blog

February 1, 2011

Hunting Feral Hogs with Helicopters?

Feral hogs may face aerial attack at Balcones Canyonlands refuge

Population control efforts are falling short; officials mull using helicopters.

Aerial shooting of feral hogs could look like this scene near Mertzon, or brush could be too dense to allow effective hunting of the destructive animals.
Eric Gay/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Aerial shooting of feral hogs could look like this scene near Mertzon, or brush could be too dense to allow effective hunting of the destructive animals.

Hoping to combat the destructive impact of feral hogs on the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge northwest of Austin, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering culling the hogs by shooting them from a helicopter.

For years the refuge staff has tried to keep hog populations down by trapping them or killing them in one of several late autumn hunts — but to little avail. Rooting aggressively for food and willing to wallow in anything that looks like a comforting depression of mud, the hogs have caused widespread damage to pastures, according to refuge manager Deborah Holle .

The refuge, formed in 1992 to protect habitat for two endangered songbirds, comprises about 23,000 acres in Burnet, Travis and Williamson counties. There is no evidence that the hogs disrupt the life of the songbirds, but they do wreak havoc on other wildlife in the refuge, Holle said, outcompeting them for food and destroying their habitat.

Under the Feral Hog Management Plan, approved in 2001, hunters can shoot the animals during the refuge’s “Big Game Hunt.” The federal agency is considering amending the plan to allow for aerial shooting, which it calls a “successful and accepted means of hog control” in a news release. “Aerial shooting can be a cost-effective method for reducing the number of feral hogs occurring in high densities.”

The amendment to the plan would, specifically, allow personnel from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services to shoot feral hogs on refuge lands away from public roads and developed areas. Shooting could begin as soon as next month , before the endangered birds begin their nesting period in early March.

Despite operating a half-dozen traps, Holle says the refuge nets only about 40 hogs a year. Once trapped, the animals are left for coyotes.

Destruction by feral hogs is a statewide problem, according to Mike Bodenchuk , state director for Texas Wildlife Services, which runs programs to keep the animals in check.

He said that in 2003, “the pig bomb went off,” and the population increased 20 percent a year through 2007 as litters outraced population control tactics. They now number about 2 million.

Bodenchuk said the pigs cause $400 million in damage annually, he said.

The state allows people to hunt hogs on their own land, or with the permission of a landowner, year-round in an effort to keep numbers down.

“Eating wild hog is the most delicious pork you’ll ever get,” said Joel McMurtrey , who used to spearhead hog eradication efforts at the refuge and whose e-mail handle is hawgmn .

He said the hogs are hard to count and to catch because with the slightest pressure they become nocturnal.

“I wish them luck with their activity,” McMurtrey said of the Wildlife Services plan, but hunting the hogs by helicopter “will give very little advantage because the brush is so dense and it’s hard to see what’s there.”

asherprice@statesman.com; 445-3643

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