By Will Grant
Feral hogs occupy a unique place among wildlife in this country. Early Spanish explorers brought the first hogs to North America as a food source more than 300 years ago. In the 1930s, European wild hogs, or Russian Boars, were imported by sportsmen and landowners for sport hunting.
The hogs are feral; they are not native to North America. The populations we see today, which are largely in the Southeast US, are the descendants of escaped animals. And as a breeding population, they’ve been wildly successful.
Biologists estimate there are about 5 million feral hogs in North America spread across 39 states and four Canadian provinces. For hundreds of years, hogs were endemic to many ecosystems—they survived in small numbers, and their effects were minimal.
But in the last 30 years or so, wild hogs have enjoyed an explosive growth in numbers. They have no natural predators, can eat nearly anything, and are adept survivors. Females are ready to breed at six months old, can give birth to up to a 14 babies at once, and have an average of 2.5 litters per year. They’re also one of the few animals that can come into heat while still pregnant.
With the explosion in population, state wildlife commissions across the country have taken steps to mitigate population growth and the animals’ damage to native ecosystems and local agriculture. A conservative estimate of the pigs’ damage to the environment and agriculture in the US is $1.5 billion annually.
Because they’re non-native and destructive, hunting regulations are far more liberal for feral pigs than most other animals. In most places, you can shoot them at night, there’s no bag limit on how many you can shoot, and you can bait them.
And more often than not, a landowner with pigs wants you to shoot as many as you can by whatever means necessary. To those interested in shooting, that means a lot of hunting.
MOONLESS NIGHTS IN GEORGIA
Rod Pinkston founded Jager Pro, based in Columbus, Georgia, in 2006 as a high-volume solution for landowners wanting to reduce local hog populations. Over the years, him, his guides and paying customers have killed thousands of hogs. In 2012, Pinkston estimates his company will be responsible for killing as many as 2,000 hogs.
“This is probably our best year yet,” he says. “The problem is were working ourselves right out of a job… We’re the Special Forces of hog hunting.”
Pinkston spent 24 years in the Army and retired from the US Army Marksmanship Unit’s Olympic Shooting Team at Fort Benning. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, his shooters earned two gold medals. It was the first time US shooters earned four shotgun medals in the history of Olympic shooting.
A breadth of experience with wildlife, shooting and combat contributes to his success with Jager Pro. He first got the idea for the business while manning an observation post during Operation Desert Storm. His original goal for Jager Pro was take retired men from the Marksmanship Unit and apply their skills to hog control.
“We went from a two-legged enemy to a four-legged enemy,” he says. “We take a systematic approach to eliminating hogs… The mantra of Jager Pro is efficiency.”
Pinkson invented the MINE (manually initiated nusicuance elimination) trapping system to bait and corral large numbers of hogs, up to 30 at a time. With cameras and a remotely operated gate, Pinkston and his men have trapped entire sounders, or herds, of wild pigs at once.
But when the trap fails to catch all the pigs, the men take to the field with .308 Remington R-25 semi-automatic rifles fitted with $13,500 military-grade thermal scopes. And Jager Pro does guide hunters to shoot pigs.
But, Pinkston cautions, this isn’t the kind of hunting you did with Granddad in a tree stand with a flask of whiskey.
“I want people to understand this isn’t a picnic,” he says. “We’re going out there to kill everything that oinks. This isn’t something to take lightly.”
They only hunt on the darkest nights when there’s minimal moonlight. They spot the hogs from up to a mile away using thermal optics. They determine wind direction, where the cover is, and what direction the pigs will flee once shot at. And then they stalk.
Pinkston likes to set up shooters as close as 40 yards from feeding pigs but is sometimes forced to takes shots from as far away as 80 yards. When the shooters are set, Pinkston counts 3 – 2 – 1, and then, more often than not, pigs fall.
But pigs are not easy to kill. And, like all targets, when they’re on the run, they’re even harder to kill. Most paying hunters have a hard time placing a shot on a running target, but men retired from the Marksmanship Unit can usually clean up a few stragglers.
Part of what makes feral pigs hard to hunt is their intelligence.
A PROBLEM AS BIG AS TEXAS
Nowhere is the hog problem more pressing than in Texas. More than half the wild hogs in the US live in Texas, about 4 million at last count. In 2010 Texas passed a law that allowed aerial gunning of wild hogs. For men like Matt Ashcraft, that’s meant a surge in business.
“I’m getting my door kicked in by people from all over the world wanting to shoot hogs,” he says. “ Myself and just a few other pilots were flying aerial wildlife management [for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department] for years before the sport hunting law passed. Now it’s wildly popular.”
Ashcraft and his team don’t fly when the trees have leaves or when it’s hot; the season is basically from October through April. The foliage blocks line of sight to the targets, and when it’s cold the animals move more and need to eat more, which makes hunting them easier.
Ashcraft can often see fresh sign of pigs from the air—tracks through a field, rooted crop rows, ripped apart hay bales.
“Where we find fresh sign, we look for cover,” he says. “You find the food, and you know they need cover and water.”
Ashcraft will hover above the thickest brush in the area to scare hogs out of hiding. Most of the helicopters he flies are fitted with an air horn, which will move hogs. He also uses a handheld air horn and will create a racket until the hogs leave the cover.
They usually leave the cover in a tight group, maybe walking in a line. Using the helicopter he will try to herd the hogs as far from any cover as possible. For when the shooting starts, there’s no telling which direction the pigs will run. But run they will.
As the helicopter coasts alongside the running targets, a few well-placed shots from an AR usually sends the pigs into cartwheels. But when Ashcraft flies for Heli Hunter, the shooters are using Saiga 12 gauge shotguns loaded with 00 buckshot.
Shooting animals from a helicopter is a different experience than most people will ever have. But thanks to the 2010 law, more people can now taste the adrenaline of looking through the sights of gun at pig running below them.
“I’m not going to lie,” he says, “it’s fun, and it’s exciting, and people love it.”
Earlier this year, Ashcraft met a group of Chinese businessmen who thought hunting pigs from the air sounded fun. He set them up with Heli Hunter, and the men were soon outfitted with cowboy hats and cowboy boots and a slew of Texas souvenirs. They were also outfitted with the 12 gauge Saigas.
“They ended up having a negligent discharge,” he says. “They didn’t speak a word of English and had to use a translator.”
THE ROOT OF THE PROBLEM
In the last 30 years, wild hogs have increased in both distribution and number. Throwing lead at them and trapping are two methods that clearly lay down a lot of hogs. But the population continues to grow faster than efforts to control it.
To understand this growth, Ashcraft thinks you need to look at the situation from a different angle. Yes, the animals breed often and produce a lot of young. Yes, they eat nearly anything and are smart. But Ashcraft thinks that diet may be a cause of the problem.
In Texas, it’s common practice to set out automatic feeders or plant rows of crops to attract deer. Corn, which is very high in protein, is most often fed to the deer.
“If I fly for an hour and don’t see a corn feeder, something’s wrong,” he says. “It’s like a high-protein all-you-can-eat buffet out there.”
In the late 1970s, Texas passed a law that made it legal to feed wildlife. That was about the same time that the hog population began to grow out of control. In the 1980s, the feral hog population was headed for record numbers.
Most old timers in Texas say they never had a hog problem before the ’80s. Now, the hogs are regularly pushing deer off the corn feeders. And that corn is richer than anything the hogs could find otherwise.
“Some people may not like to hear that,” Ashcraft says, “but it’s the truth. How else can you explain to me why Texas now has this huge problem?”
Most experts, hunters, and guides agree that feral hogs will never be completely eradicated from North America. And since they are now sport animals where people like Ashcraft and Pinkston make a profit off them, the issue becomes doubly as challenging.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” Ashcraft says. “But I would say that business probably won’t change in the foreseeable future.”
For the landowners, that means that local treatments (killing resident hogs) will be the name of the game. For sport hunters, that means good hunting.
“Welcome to Texas,” Ashcraft says. “You wanna to shoot pigs from a helicopter? Come on!”
Recipe- You would be unwise not to eat the wild pig you kill. The meat is leaner, but it has a flavor all its own. And it’s showing up more often in restaurants across the country. Our pick for a hearty, wild meal is from the Broken Arrow Ranch in Ingram, Texas. Check out their recipe for Braised Leg of Wild Boar with Black Beans and Chilies.
Knife- Wild pigs have notoriously tough hide. You’ll need a good knife to dress one out and process the meat. We suggest the DPx Gear HEFT 6 Woodsman. The meaty, Sleipner blade holds a razor edge, is available with serrations at the base of the blade, and will prove nearly as handy as your rifle for putting meat on the table.
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