Texas' wild hogs `disaster' in the making

Hundreds of thousands roam countryside, posing threat to crops, wildlife

November 26, 2003|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

FORT WORTH, Texas -- They roam the Texas countryside by the hundreds of thousands.

They can grow to be 400 pounds and have been known to flip a vehicle in a collision on a dark country road. And one bullet usually isn't enough to drop the biggest ones.

Wild hogs, which once were a problem only in east and south Texas, are moving into areas of the state where many thought they couldn't survive. They damage crops and play havoc with wildlife, and experts worry that they carry diseases that could create an epidemic for farmers and ranchers.

"They're the closest thing to an ecological monster that we have," said Neil Wilkins, a professor at Texas A&M University. "I equate them in terms of destruction to fire ants. And if fire ants were the ecological disaster of the '80s and '90s, feral hogs will be the disaster of 2005 or 2010. By 2010, everyone will know about feral hogs."

Wild hogs have been rooting around Texas since 1685, when they slipped away from French explorer Robert La Salle's crew. Over the centuries, they reproduced like rabbits.

About 2 million root through Texas, creating problems for farmers, ranchers, golf courses, nature preserves and the occasional unsuspecting driver.

The hogs have no known natural predators. Even hunters can have a difficult time killing them because of their tough, thick hides.

They cause about $100,000 a year in damage to crops in Erath County alone. At the Fort Worth Nature Center, the creatures have rooted up the landscape and compete with other animals for food. At San Antonio golf courses, hogs have turned fairways into one gigantic sand trap in a single night.

Now, the hogs are ranging far from their traditional base and moving into Dallas/Fort Worth suburbs and into far west Texas.

The hogs use creeks and river bottoms as their own interstate network, but they didn't migrate without human help.

"They've been deliberately turned loose all over the state illegally, and with their wonderful adaptive abilities they've flourished," said Jan Loven, district supervisor for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Service in Fort Worth.

"Nature abhors a vacuum, and we've had an exotic species that has been deliberately and illegally introduced into the wild."

Many sportsmen love to hunt them, particularly the wild boars that sprout tusks. Unlike game animals such as deer and turkey, it's open season on feral hogs 365 days a year. No license is required.

"Business is great. We get calls just about every day from people wanting to go on a hog hunt," said Chris Byrne, who manages the Buck N' Boar Outfitters ranch near Grapeland in east Texas.

"We've got people coming from Mississippi, South Carolina, Minnesota and even Mexico," he said. "They're one of the smartest animals in the world. They have a very keen sense of smell, they're a real challenge -- and a lot of people want to hunt them."

Byrne is raising purebred Russian hogs on the 400-acre spread he manages between Crockett and Palestine, Texas. Since the first litter was born last summer, Byrne said, he has released about 120 hogs on the well-fenced property.

Many of his east Texas neighbors are conducting their own hog hunts -- not to kill but to catch and sell to others who want to hunt them on their land.

"It's a good source of extra income for many people around here," Byrne said. "I've had several people calling me saying, `We just caught three or four hogs, are you interested?' But we decided we didn't want to go that route because of disease concerns."

Officials say they know some hogs carry swine brucellosis and pseudo-rabies.

Those diseases aren't a risk to humans but could be dangerous to livestock.

"You've got to watch it if you're hunting with dogs," Byrne said. "I've seen one get cut by a wild hog, contract rabies and be dead in five days. You don't even know they've got it until it's too late."

In Erath County, officials use a helicopter to flush wild hogs into the open, where hunters and dogs finish them off.

"I've seen it take 15 to 20 bullets to kill one of those boars," said Loven.

Hogs have also become a dangerous form of roadkill on Texas highways. In some cases, cars have flipped after colliding with the hogs.

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