“LOOKS LIKE THEY’VE GOT SOMETHING RIGHT NOW,” drawls John Huff, a wildlife technician at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s office in Three Rivers. We’ve been driving down a dirt road on the Rehm Ranch outside Sabinal for about ten minutes, following Huff’s hunting dogs, when they veer off into the brush, barking. Huff grabs his .22 magnum rifle, and we chase after the dogs on foot, followed by Rick Taylor, a biologist with Parks and Wildlife’s Uvalde office, and Pete Denney, who owns the ranch and its hunting outfitter, Brushy Hill. Huff darts ahead of me, and I am just negotiating a patch of high guajillo and black brush when I hear his rifle shot. As I come around the patch, with Taylor right behind me, Huff’s three dogs are on a fallen wild hog, chewing at his midsection and ears and pulling at his legs. The hog, which I had heard squealing moments ago, is now heaving deep, phlegmy sighs.
You really need to see a wild hog, also known as a feral hog, up close to comprehend just how ugly it is. This one is wide at the shoulders and narrow at the hips, about 210 pounds, with coarse, bristly black fur that’s sharp to the touch. The three-inch-long upper and lower tusks at each side of his mouth are honed to vicious points from constant grinding. Fighting in the wild, he has grown hard, protective scar tissue around his shoulders that slows bullets and arrows alike; his ears are short and erect, his tail is straight.
In all, it takes three more shots to the head to put him away for good. Huff pulls his dogs off and quickly begins to field-dress his conquest; dressing it immediately after it is killed is crucial to ensuring that the meat won’t spoil before it’s refrigerated. As I hold the feet straight up to keep it on its back, he cuts off the genitalia, then slits the belly lengthwise and pulls out the innards. “And there you have it,” he says. “Here comes the hard part, pulling him out.” We’ve run much farther into the brush than I had realized, and the truck can’t get near us.
Wild hogs have become a major nuisance in rural Texas; most landowners hate them, though some ranchers appreciate the hunting revenues they can bring. Members of the Suidae family, wild hogs (Sus scrofa) are often confused with the collared peccary, or javelina, a smaller animal belonging to a different family, with straight tusks and no tail. Wild hogs have roamed Texas almost since the early Spanish explorers introduced domestic hogs to the region more than three hundred years ago. During the Texas Revolution and the Civil War, settlers fleeing their land often released their hogs; when they restocked their property after the hostilities ended, many of them let their hogs range freely, allowing them to escape into the feral population. Domestic hogs that escape their pens turn wild quickly, and the longer they are free, the wilder they get. In the 1930’s European wild boars (also known as Russian boars) were brought to rural Texas for sport hunting. Thus the state’s current population includes feral hogs, European wild boars, and European-feral crossbreeds. Over many generations of interbreeding, the wild boar genes predominate, so that wild hogs eventually come to resemble their European ancestors. The average male wild hog, or boar, is 150 to 175 pounds, and the sow is usually 100 to 150, though hunters have brought in kills weighing more than 600 pounds.
In the past three decades wild hogs have multiplied rapidly in Texas and 22 other states, mostly in the Sunbelt, though they’re also making inroads into the Midwest. Parks and Wildlife’s Taylor estimates that there are probably up to two million of the beasts in Texas, but notes that they’re harder to count than other wildlife because they’re nocturnal and don’t stick to a home range. In short, there may be many more than we think. Though strongest in South Texas, they can be found all over the state except in parts of the Panhandle and the Trans-Pecos. The situation here isn’t as bad as it is in California, where the animals are ripping up suburban golf courses that border on rural areas, but Taylor figures that’ll happen in Texas soon enough. And there’s very little that can be done to control the population.
“The feral hog seems to be an animal that nobody wants,” he points out. “They’re not classified as wildlife, though they’re free-ranging animals. They’re classified as livestock, but that industry doesn’t want anything to do with them. They’re a non-native animal, an exotic species that doesn’t belong with natural native fauna. We used to believe the climate would limit their spread, that they’d stop moving into new areas that are too cold or dry. But that’s turning out to be not true.” Taylor became the state expert on wild hogs “by default,” he says. When he moved to the Uvalde Parks and Wildlife station eleven years ago, he thought the beasts might be a threat to the area’s deer and wild turkey populations and began studying them. He compares them with fire ants, another non-native creature that has made itself at home here.
“Eventually, they’ll be everywhere they can be, and the population will slow down,” Taylor says. “But we don’t know yet where they won’t go.” They prefer bottomlands, such as the areas around rivers or creeks, but will go anywhere that offers dense, protective cover. The population grows quickly because the female can have two litters (usually four to six piglets, though sometimes as many as twelve) over an eighteen-month period. Also, recent advances in raising domestic livestock—disease eradication and improved pastures and feeding practices—have inadvertently benefited wild hogs. And, until the Texas Animal Health Commission prohibited it in 1992, ranchers and hunters had been buying hogs in stock auctions and setting them free to increase the odds of bagging one.