That’s the most important thing I learned from two days of shadowing a professional feral hog eradication team in Texas this summer.
Yeah, they’re just pigs, but they’re wild pigs, and if you get badly gored by one of their razor-sharp, curved tusks, you can bleed to death in a matter of minutes—or maybe worse, go home with a terrible, lingering infection from one of the many diseases the pigs can carry.
Wild pigs are everywhere in Texas, but they’re also hard to find. They’re smart, for one thing, but they’re also short, and unlike other wild animals—say deer or elk—they don’t have big antlers to let you know exactly where they are. Which is why most serious hog hunters use dogs.
So I knew when I heard the dogs start barking like crazy that they’d found hogs down in the creek bed. But I stopped short of following the hunters into the writhing, chest-high grass that was emanating a furious combination of barks and shrieks and squeals.
How many hogs were in there? How big were they? They say most hogs are only around 200 pounds, but then you see those pictures of hogs the size of a Smart Car. It was impossible to tell from the creek bank.
The hunter I was following had jumped into the grass with his .45 drawn, hoping to kill as many pigs as possible, at point-blank range.
He fired a huge, booming shot and my heart paused before banging out a double-strong beat. I pictured a rampage of furious hogs exploding out of the grass, their tusks aimed directly at my femoral artery. I thought: I don’t want to die this way. So I jumped off the path, hid behind a thick cypress and caught the denouement on video. I’m a reporter, not a hunter.
In the end, two black, wiry-coated pigs were shot, and a piglet was killed by the dogs.
I was in Texas to learn more about the nation’s largest population of invasive, non-native wild hogs. The guys I was following, Darrell and Ron Corbyn, run a private company known as HogStoppers. If you have feral hogs on your land in Texas and you don’t want them there, who you gonna call? The Corbyns are the Ghostbusters of wild boar.
But New Mexico is taking a more formal approach. In January, a group of state and federal agencies, armed with $1 million in federal funding, joined forces to launch an assault on feral hogs in New Mexico. The plan was to locate their whereabouts using intelligence from double agents known as “Judas pigs,” then send forces in a helicopter to ambush and kill as many of them as possible. Although non-native wild hogs are spreading quickly across the country, no other state has taken such swift, aggressive measures to get rid of them. The team has killed 500 animals so far, and team leaders say they’re ahead of schedule to completely eliminate them.
Feral hogs are the descendants of escaped domestic pigs, European hogs brought by Spanish colonists and the offspring of wild boar imported from Europe for hunting. They’re all the same species, sus scrofa. (One thing they’re not? Javelinas. Totally different family.) Over the past few years, the pigs have moved into 17 counties in eastern New Mexico, creeping closer and closer to Santa Fe. They come from Texas, where experts say there are between 2 and 4 million feral hogs, and officials have proclaimed the pig problem a major crisis.
Generally speaking, Americans are fond of wildlife, and we go to great lengths to protect and manage populations of wild animals such as deer and elk, as well as the predators that keep those populations in check, like wolves and cougars. But some species just don’t play nice with others. Because feral hogs have been known to seriously damage other wildlife and habitat, the federal government has identified them as an invasive species and has made controlling and eradicating them a priority.
New Mexico’s program is led by the United States Department of Agriculture, which was instrumental in procuring the $1 million for what USDA Under Secretary Ed Avalos says he hopes will be an eradication model that can be exported to other states. Currently, no other state has taken on the goal of getting rid of all of its invasive pigs.
What makes New Mexico’s project different is the state’s relatively small population of wild boar; its arid geography, which offers limited potential habitat; strong state laws restricting the hogs; and an unusually broad group of partners. Staff time, equipment, funding and other resources are being contributed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Mescalero Apache Tribe, the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association, New Mexico State University and several state departments, including the Department of Health, the State Land Office, the Department of Game and Fish and the Livestock Board.
That cooperation is essential in a state where so much land is controlled by government entities, and much of the eradication effort has been focused on public land. But several private landowners in the affected areas have signed agreements to allow the team to work on their property.
They’re using several methods to find and track the hogs, including trapping, radio telemetry and the appropriately devious-sounding Judas hogs.
Pigs are surprisingly intelligent animals, not far behind dolphins and chimps. They lack the flexible paws of raccoons but are skilled at opening gates and cages. They can jump fences almost three feet high, and they’re known for climbing on top of each other to escape higher walls. All of this makes them difficult, but not impossible, to trap.
When eradicators trap a group of hogs, they spare one, fit it with a radio collar and release it. Only females are used as Judas hogs. That’s because wild pigs live in groups called sounders, made up of females and their offspring. The males roam from group to group.
Trackers follow the collared pig to the new group and note its location. They can follow up on foot, or more likely, in the helicopter. More than 75 percent of the hogs that have been eradicated so far were shot from the air.
Normally, that’s considered unsportsmanlike (and often, illegal), but when the goal is eradication, sportsmanship isn’t the issue. The team’s goal is to eliminate the entire population of feral swine as quickly as possible.
“A lot of them are shot in areas it would be next to impossible to get to,” says Alan May, the state director of Wildlife Services for the USDA.
So far, the hogs have mostly followed the path of the Pecos River, which exits New Mexico south of Carlsbad, but whose northernmost fingers spread west through San Miguel County toward the Santa Fe County line. Although they’ve been spotted in San Miguel County, they haven’t made it here quite yet.
But what if they did? The hogs range in territories of several hundred to several thousand acres and can run up to 30 miles an hour.
“They could ruin someone’s organic farm within a matter of hours,” says Jose Varela Lopez, the president-elect of the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association, who has a small cattle operation in La Cieneguilla, 15 miles southwest of Santa Fe.
Lopez, who is also the vice-chairman of the Santa Fe/Pojoaque Soil and Water Conservation District, is particularly concerned about hogs spreading disease to his cattle and contaminating his water. His property has two springs (cieneguilla means “little swamp”) that would make perfect hog habitat.
“I worry about this old traditional community, with all the small farms we have, and the irrigation systems. It would be a major impact,” if the hogs invaded, Lopez says.
Feral hogs have made a lot of enemies because they are voracious omnivores. Experts estimate wild hogs do $52 million in damage to Texas agriculture every year. New Mexico farmers fear them because they can destroy a field of corn, vegetables, soybeans or hay overnight. Ranchers know that the biggest hogs can snatch newborn deer, sheep and goats, and spread dangerous diseases to cattle. Environmentalists fret that the pigs devour delicate native species of snakes, frogs, fish—even the lesser prairie chicken and the dunes sagebrush lizard.
Which brings us to another one of the many strange bedfellows who have a stake in getting rid of the pigs.
The State Land Office manages 9 million acres of land, selling and leasing it—for grazing, mining and the extraction of oil and gas—to generate money for the permanent fund. And the permanent fund is how we pay for public schools in New Mexico. So we’re all pretty invested in the success of that fund. But feral hogs have invaded at least 1 million acres of state trust land, according to State Land Commissioner Ray Powell.
You’ve heard about the lesser prairie chicken (looks nothing like a chicken) and the dunes sagebrush lizard (looks like a lizard), right? Both have been teetering on the edge of the endangered species list for a while now. Well, the prairie chicken, which is actually a kind of grouse, lays its delicious little eggs in nests right on the ground, where pigs can easily snarf them. And the lizard’s favorite habitat is the shade of acorn-producing oak trees that pigs love to feast under. Pigs also eat the lizards. Seriously, they are omnivores.
These animals’ territory overlaps with land ripe for energy development, and the industry has been working hard to fend off endangered species listings that could severely restrict drilling. Everyone agrees that feral pigs could make the situation worse. Which is why the State Land Office, which depends on the revenue from oil and gas leases in the area, is so supportive of the effort to get rid of the hogs. And the Feral Hog Eradication Team has given special attention to the prairie chicken’s habitat.
Even Animal Protection of New Mexico, an animal rights group aligned with the Humane Society, couldn’t bring itself to oppose a plan to shoot the pigs from helicopters.
“Lots of other animals are suffering because of the pigs…so not having them in our state is probably the greater benefit,” says Lisa Jennings, the group’s executive director. She describes aerial gunning as “horrific,” but says they couldn’t find a solution that was more humane, more effective and more acceptable to all of the stakeholders.
She’s referring to the likelihood that some of the wild hogs made their way up the Pecos River valley on their own, but that others were brought to New Mexico on purpose, to provide hunting opportunities. One of the primary forces behind the spread of the hogs nationwide is sportsmen’s interest in hog hunting. Those used to stalking docile deer say that hunting the smarter, meaner pigs is more exciting. The resulting pork is prized for its rich flavor—and a big-tusked boar’s head can be an impressive piece of taxidermy.
Other game species, like elk, deer or even javelina, are regulated by the state Department of Game and Fish, and those who want to hunt them have to request permits—known as tags—through a lottery. Even then, tag-holders are subject to hunting seasons and other restrictions, including the type of weapons they can use.
None of this applies to wild hogs, which are considered a nuisance, not a game species. So if you see feral hogs on public land, you are welcome to kill as many as you like with whatever weapons you are legally allowed to carry there. You can even bring a pack of trained hog-hunting dogs to help you find them.
But this is mostly hypothetical. Joel Gay, the communications director for the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, a conservation-oriented sportsmen’s group, says he and others in the group have tried for years to find pigs to hunt on public land.
“I remember reading about eating feral hog and thinking: I would love to do this, get a couple hundred pounds of good pork, by myself,” Gay says. “But so far, I haven’t had the chance.”
That’s probably because New Mexico reacted quickly and aggressively to the hog threat. In 2009, then-Gov. Bill Richardson signed a short, simple bill sponsored by state Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell, R-Chaves, that made it illegal to import, transport, hold for breeding, release or sell live feral hogs. Ezzell’s bill also prohibited any commercial hog hunting enterprise and set the penalty at $1,000.
“I went to a Cattle Growers’ Association meeting in the fall of 2008, and it came up,” Ezzell says. “I knew that there was a problem…and I heard how devastating they’d become, so I was like: We’ve gotta do something now.”
Ezzell says she encountered no real opposition to the bill during the legislative session. She’s still proud of winning the support of Animal Protection Voters, which endorsed the bill.
Although hunting is what may have brought the hogs here, it’s not a viable solution to the problem. There’s no way to know exactly how many wild boar have invaded New Mexico, but trail cameras, muddy hoofprints and eyewitness accounts indicate many thousands. There are too many hogs to ignore, but also too few of them—in territory too remote—for individual hunters to be effective in eliminating them.
New Mexico’s response to the hogs incorporates many lessons learned from Texas, home to the biggest population of feral hogs in the country. The explosion of the hog population in Texas, which began to take off in the 1980s, was almost entirely caused by humans. The vast majority of the state—approximately 95 percent—consists of privately owned land. And Texans have a strong passion for hunting, making it hard for state officials to control the hog population there, despite cries of a crisis.
For every farmer who’s lost a crop to feral hogs, there’s a landowner who puts corn in a deer feeder. Baiting deer with corn is illegal in New Mexico, but Texans put out more than 300 million pounds of corn every year. Much of that is loaded into feeders used to lure deer near blinds set up to camouflage the hunters. And many hunters—frustrated, bored or up to their limit in deer—turn to shooting hogs that come to feed on cracked corn.
Hunting and fishing has a huge economic impact on Texas, estimated at $14.4 billion, so it’s no wonder landowners who run commercial hunts began trapping the animals and bringing them to their own property to supplement hunting opportunities for deer and other imported exotic species.
Of course, the wily escape artists easily broke free and quickly colonized new habitat. Wild hogs are the most prolific large mammals on the planet. Females can begin breeding at one year old. From then on, they can produce up to two litters of five to six piglets every year.
In 2007, Texas saw the light and decided to regulate the movement of feral swine. The state made it clear that it was fine to capture the hogs and sell them for slaughter, but banned their sale at livestock markets and made it illegal to transfer female pigs to approved hunting preserves. But by then, the pig was out of the trap.
Supporters of eradication are always quick to point out that feral hogs carry diseases that can be transmitted to humans, cattle and pets. People who come into contact with the hogs can be at risk of familiar things like trichinosis and E coli, along with less familiar threats, such as leptospirosis, salmonellosis and brucellosis. The pigs can spread tuberculosis, pseudorabies and swine flu to other animals.
These are serious concerns for people living in parts of the state affected by feral swine. But many city-dwellers have a less pressing, but still significant concern: If we have to kill them, why can’t we at least eat them? In a state obsessed with carne adovada and chicharrones, many people get heartburn just thinking of all that pork going to waste.
In places like Texas, where the pig populations are huge, many hunters are happy to take home a cooler full of pork. The Corbyns butchered both hogs they shot and made a feast of pork loin smoked over oak and mesquite.
On a bigger job, if they’d been hired to remove dozens or hundreds of hogs from a property, they would just leave the hogs as they lay. And that’s what happens here. The animals killed in New Mexico’s eradication effort are left in place to provide food for scavengers. It seems a waste, but it’s one of many difficult elements of dealing with an invasive species.
With millions of feral hogs, and with fewer restrictions on them, Texas has made an art out of cooking wild boar. The state has a network of approved holding facilities where trapped hogs can be dropped off for transfer to two USDA-certified slaughterhouses. Live wild boars are given pre-mortem and post-mortem veterinary inspections before being processed, giving consumers reassurance that the meat is safe. As a result, local wild boar has become a popular menu item in fancy restaurants from Houston to Fort Worth.
New Mexico’s comparatively low population of feral pigs and lack of approved processing facilities make it unlikely that local wild boar will ever end up on the menu in any of Santa Fe’s restaurants—much as chefs would love to cook with it.
Hunters who kill boars on their own land or on public lands can always field dress and butcher the animals themselves, although they’re advised to take precautions against disease while handling the animal, and to cook the meat thoroughly.
“Like any wild game, feral swine does come with risks,” May says. (USDA has a brochure: “Wild Hog Hunting: Stay Healthy on Your Hunt!”)
But the reality is that few hunters in New Mexico will have the opportunity to take home a hog.
“We just flew up and down the Pecos River drainage [in mid-July], and we’re not finding many feral swine at all left out there,” May says.
But that’s partly the point. While states like Texas have struggled mightily to deal with invasive pigs, New Mexico is making unexpectedly speedy progress with its Feral Hog Eradication Team.
“It’s been easier than what we expected,” May says. “I know we can eradicate pigs. No other state has been successful at this, but no other state is in the eradication business…All it’s going to take is the money, the effort and the cooperation…and we’ve got it.”
Just because animal rights groups supported restrictions on the hogs and didn’t oppose the eradication plan, though, doesn’t mean they’re happy with the situation. The success of an effort to wipe out an invasive species should prompt some hard questions about the way we interact with animals, Jennings says.
“We’ve done this over and over again,” she says. “We did it with the oryx: they bred well, and now they have to be killed. We need to learn from mistakes like this. We have to be more circumspect about animals and how we manipulate their populations, moving them here and there to make money off them with no thought on the outcome.”
Gwyneth Doland is a former SFR staffer who recently returned from several days of shadowing a private feral hog eradication team in Texas.