There’s a war on feral hogs in Texas, and the hogs are winning.
by Asher Elbein
July 24, 2017
When night falls on Storm Ranch, a 5,700-acre expanse in Dripping Springs, it falls purple and soft over fields and groves of oak and pecan. That’s when the pigs come, Josh Storm says, stealing up from the canyon bottoms and brush to root through the leaf litter. Signs of their presence appear throughout the property — broken fences, destroyed gardens, furrows dug in the grass by spade-like noses. “If I had to make a rough estimate, I’d say that there are 150, maybe 200 hogs out here,” Storm says. “They tend to come and go, on adjacent pieces of property as well. So you never really know.”
Storm is a wildlife biologist as well as a rancher, and he speaks with the kind of slow drawl made for explaining things. His property is a hunting ranch, among other things, and every year people arrive to take a shot at the hogs. They pay $100 for a day’s entry, plus $50 per hog shot, and another $50 if they don’t feel like cleaning the carcass themselves. That money is welcome income in the off-season for deer and turkey, and helps replace the broken fences and furrowed ground. By his own admission, Storm has it pretty easy: He doesn’t grow crops on his property, and the damage can be fixed. Others are not so lucky.
Consider the hog. Feral pigs are large: Adult females average 175 pounds and males reach 300 pounds or more. They breed often and in good times can raise three litters of up to 12 piglets apiece in a year. Their senses are sharp. They happily feed on anything from nuts and tubers to carrion and small animals. As anyone who has ever hunted one will tell you, they are adaptable, formidable and not easily fooled. Hogs are exciting game for sport hunting, and their ability to ingratiate themselves into human systems makes them the perfect invader.
Beginning in the 1970s, Texas sportsmen illegally — and unwisely — released wild pigs onto hunting ranches across the state. It was not the first time pigs colonized Texas — a batch had come with explorer Hernando de Soto in 1539 — but this time, for reasons that still aren’t entirely clear, the population exploded. They spread out from the ranches, sometimes foraging on supplemental feed left out for deer and pheasant, sometimes methodically working over farmland, sometimes mating with other escaped pigs. Crops of melon and rice, potato and soybean vanished. The agriculture industry reported thousands of dollars in losses, then millions. Hogs began disrupting fragile habitats in state parks. And still more arrived — trapped, trailered in and released as game. By the time state officials managed to put a stop to the practice in the ’90s, it was too late.
According to conservative estimates, there are now around 2.6 million hogs in Texas, more than anywhere else in the United States. Their foraging causes about $52 million in annual agricultural damage, and as their numbers increase they have pushed into suburban and urban areas. (Only El Paso County is thought to be clear of them, and perhaps not for long.) Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller’s controversial attempt to poison the pigs has thrown the extent of the problem into sharp relief. Hogs in Texas have become not just a pest, but a commodity. Professional hog hunters and landowners who lease their land for hunts stand to lose if pigs are eradicated. Farmers and those suffering their depredations want them gone. And nobody knows how to get rid of them.