By Andy Ross
Killeen Daily Herald
Feral hog hunters interested in taking their sport to new heights may soon have the chance thanks to a new bill that would make recreational hog and coyote hunting from helicopters more accessible in Texas.
After overwhelmingly passing the House in 137-9 vote on Monday, House Bill 716, filed by Rep. Sid Miller, R-Stephenville, is currently awaiting committee referral in the Senate.
Miller said his measure is not about sport, but controlling wild hog populations that are responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars in agriculture and property damage every year.
Killing hogs from the sky is not a new phenomenon. Under current law, landowners who want to reduce hog populations can hire private helicopter services who have obtained aerial gunning permits from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. TPWD spokesman Tom Harvey said 116 permits were issued in 2010.
Miller's bill gives landowners the right to sell hunting opportunities on the helicopters they hire, effectively helping them recoup expenses - or potentially make a profit.
"The feral hog population is a real problem," Miller said. "In order to hunt hogs now landowners hire helicopters who have a permit through the TPWD. Right now there is no way to defray that cost. My bill would allow landowners to have some of that cost defrayed."
The havoc wild hogs are capable of wreaking is no secret for Texas farmers. The animals are an invasive species, having first been introduced to North America hundreds of years ago by the Spanish explorers and later breeding with other European wild hogs, or "Russian Boars." With their indiscriminate diets and rapid breeding capacity - sows can have up to two litters per year, each litter averaging between four and six young - wild hogs can ravage agricultural staple crops such as corn, wheat and rice.
Dirk Aaron, Bell County extension agent, said the damage caused from hogs rooting in fields or wallowing in water sources is especially worrisome. Aaron noted that a farmer who put down 40 acres of corn at $250 to $300 an acre could be looking at a $12,000 loss if hogs rooted through the fields late in the season when replanting was no longer possible.
"That's an expensive hickey just because hogs are in the cornfields," Aaron said. "It's an emotional thing for our growers."
Trap or kill
Using partial funding from the state, Bell County does hire a full-time trapper who responds to complaints about feral hogs and other wildlife. Brett Eads is Bell County's trapper and said this year he has mostly been responding to hog complaints from the southeast corner of the county, near Salado and Holland. Eads said he is not involved with the aerial gunning side of wildlife management.
In Coryell County, however, recent figures on hog kills from a helicopter operation are testament to how efficient the control method can be. Lyle Zoeller, extension agent, said the county was able to bring in a helicopter in February provided by Texas Wildlife Services. Over the course of three days, 319 feral hogs were killed on landowners properties who had agreed to participate in the program. By comparison, Zoeller said his county's trappers killed roughly 400 hogs over the entire year in 2010.
"The helicopter is by no means going to fix the problem," Zoeller said, "but it is one effective management tool."
Michael Bodenchuk is state director for the Texas Wildlife Services - now under the Texas Agrilife Extension Service umbrella - and said his agency owns two helicopters that are used for wildlife control purposes around Central and South Texas. Bodenchuk said he could not offer direct comment on Miller's bill, but did stress that the job of aerial gunning should not be taken lightly by hunters interested in going up with a private aviation company.
"Our pilots have thousands of hours of experience and our gunners go to school routinely to make sure they get enough time in to keep their proficiency up," Bodenchuk said. "We don't do this for fun. It's a very serious, detailed, training-intensive operation and having other people do that may not be the safest thing in the world."
According to recent figures provided by from Billy Higginbotham, a wildlife specialist with the Texas Agrilife Extension Service, the feral hog population in Texas is currently around
2.6 million. The damage from hogs in Texas each year is conservatively estimated at around $52 million. Estimates listed in HB 716's analysis lists the annual damage directly resulting from hogs at approximately $400 million.
Contact Andy Ross at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7468. Follow him on Twitter at KDHeducation.