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Hunting hogs from hot air balloons

Not as popular as hoped.

Turns out, hunting feral hogs from a hot air balloon is not all that popular in Texas.

Three years after state lawmakers approved the high-flying hunts, no balloon company has gotten a permit, according to Texas Parks and Wildlife.

Gunning down feral hogs from a helicopter, however, has taken off. Since the Legislature passed the so-called “pork chopper” bill in 2011 to drive down invasive pig populations, scores of businesses have begun offering aerial hog hunts to customers willing to pay thousands of dollars for the experience.


[Ag Commissioner Sid] >Miller said he floated the hot air balloon proposal to a state lawmaker after meeting a West Texan who raved about using balloons to hunt hogs. They are less noisy than helicopters and offer a more steady shooting platform, proponents have said.

Still, balloons come with their own challenges, chief among them, the wind, which can send hunters flying in the opposite direction of the hogs.

“Even though you might know where the winds are forecasted to go, doesn’t mean that’s always what the winds are going to do,” said Josh Sneed, Southwest Region Director for the Balloon Federation of America.

Sneed doesn’t know any Texas balloon pilots who offer hog hunts. Safety has been a chief concern, he said.

“You can do it safely,” he said. “But most pilots don’t feel comfortable having people carrying rifles in their balloons with them and discharging (them).”

Helicopters have proven far more popular. There are currently 155 active permits for aerial wildlife management that list helicopters, according to Texas Parks and Wildlife.

HeliBacon, based in Bryan, has approval from farmers and ranchers to hunt hogs across roughly 300,000 acres in the area, said CEO Chris Britt. Hogs tend to be nocturnal, so the after-dawn excursions last just a few hours. About 85% of the company’s customers come from out of state and some of them from abroad, he said.

“From the customer’s perspective, they want to fly in a helicopter at a low level. They want to shoot a machine gun. They’re chasing a live, moving target,” Britt said. “The fact it happens to be a feral pig that they are killing… and it’s good for the ecology, the farmers and the economy is a bonus.”

Using aircraft to take out an entire group of wild pigs is effective, but if some get away, they learn to start avoiding the sound of helicopters, said John M. Tomecek, Assistant Professor and Extension Wildlife Specialist at Texas A&M University.

See here, here, and here for more on the pork-chopping bill, which also got off to a slow start. I don’t know how I missed the story of the hot air balloon option, but it wasn’t expected to do much anyway.

It’s easy to make fun of all this, and honestly I don’t know why anyone would want to pilot any kind of aerial vehicle while one or more people in said vehicle was firing guns at moving targets, but as we have noted many times before, feral hogs are a huge problem in Texas. It’s nearly impossible to control the population growth, because they reproduce so quickly and plentifully. I’m fine with some outside-the-box ideas to try and keep the population under some control – a plan to deploy poison against the hogs was ultimately withdrawn after concerns were raised about environmental damage – though as the story notes, it’s not clear how effective the pork-chopping strategy has been. But hey, until something better comes along, at least people are trying it.

The aoudad story

Did you know before reading this post what an aoudad is, other than a potentially useful word to know the next time you play Scrabble? I admit that I had never heard of them, but the state is Texas has loads of them.

Froylan Hernandez has spent the better part of the last two months counting sheep from a helicopter. That’s not a metaphor or a kind of experimental sleep study; it’s his job.

“Oh, that’s a pretty good-sized group,” Hernandez says, looking down from the helicopter.

Hernandez is the desert bighorn sheep program leader for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. He rides in the helicopter each summer for a bighorn census. It’s the most effective method out in the West Texas mountains. But even though he’s looking for bighorns, he mostly finds another kind of sheep.

“Alright, so 32 aoudads? Yeah, 32 aoudads, copy,” Hernandez says.

Aoudads – also known as Barbary sheep – are all over West Texas, but they’re originally from North Africa. They have a long set of horns that curl back into a crescent shape, and a distinctive strip of long, shaggy hair on their neck and chest. They were brought to Texas in the 1950s as exotic game. Since then, wild populations have flourished in the dry, rocky terrain. In fact, from Hernandez’s point of view, they’ve been too successful.

“It’s not uncommon for us, when we’re flying, to see groups of two and three hundred,” he says.

Hernandez’s job is to support Texas’ population of desert bighorn sheep, not aoudads. Desert bighorns are native to Texas, but died out here in the 1960s due to overhunting and disease spread from domestic sheep. The state has worked to bring them back for the better part of three decades now, nurturing small populations in various mountain ranges. Now, there are about 1,500 desert bighorns in Texas, and Hernandez is working to increase their numbers even more. And that’s where the problem with aoudads comes in.

“They can pose a great threat to bighorns, not just [from] a competition-for-resource standpoint but also from a disease-threat standpoint,” he says.

Aoudads and desert bighorns compete for the same resources. And since there are already so many aoudads, they’re a speed bump on the desert bighorns’ road to population growth. Plus, Hernandez says that several West Texas aoudads tested positive last fall for a species of bacteria that’s caused fatal respiratory disease in desert bighorn populations elsewhere.

“And it’s not uncommon to have localized population extinctions because of this Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae,” he says.

So, while Hernandez is hovering over West Texas counting desert bighorns, he’s also keeping an eye out for aoudads, and shooting them whenever possible. Wherever he does an aerial survey, he asks the landowner’s permission to cull aoudads.

“And we try to do a total removal of any aoudad that we encounter,” Hernandez says.

Turns out that hunting aoudads is a nice piece of business for ranchers in Texas, in part because there are no limits on how many one can shoot due to their non-native invasive species designation. Do an image search for aoudad, and you’ll find a lot of places where you can get your hunt on for them. They’re going to be around, making life a little harder for the native desert bighorns, for a long time. And now we both know about the aoudads.

Pity the poor lion hunters

Gag me.

Houston was once the nation’s top destination for African lions killed by U.S. trophy hunters, but public backlash and new federal restrictions have all but ended the sport, according to a group of big game hunters that has launched a campaign to bring it back.

Since 2015 when a dentist from Minnesota killed Cecil, a famed lion in Zimbabwe, the U.S. government has made sport hunting of lions and elephants so difficult as to discourage most hunters from even trying to navigate all of the paperwork, said wildlife attorney and hunting advocate John Jackson III.

“It’s worse than it has ever been,” said Jackson, who is chairman of a group called Conservation Force that advocates for big game hunting. “Now it’s almost impossible to get permits.”

While animal rights groups might see that as a victory, Jackson said they are losing sight of millions of dollars that hunters — and Texans in particular — have poured into African nations to support animal conservation. Over 10 years, almost $1.1 million went from just the Dallas Safari Club to lion conservation projects around the world. The Houston Safari Club — which has about 1,200 members — has reported donating more than $3.7 million for animal conservation work worldwide.

In May the Houston Safari Club launched a federal political action committee to raise money that could be used to influence political campaigns. And the club has increased its political commentary on its website, declaring it is “ramping up its legislative and policy efforts” and vowing to “grow our voice.”

Federal records confirm that imports of lions to Houston and other U.S. destinations have plummeted.


The Humane Society of the United States, on the other hand, has argued that hunters are overstating their impact and that lions and other endangered species can be promoted by supporting wildlife tourism expeditions.

Anna Frostic, managing wildlife attorney for the Humane Society of the United States and Humane Society International, said trophy hunters like to claim their actions promote animal conservation, because that is what they have to prove legally in order to go on their hunts. She said on the face of it, it’s clear that killing individual animals doesn’t add to protecting the species.

“At the very least it is counter intuitive, and we would argue unethical and biologically unsubstantiated,” Frostic said.

Yeah, the whole “we must be able to kill lions in order to save them” argument doesn’t carry any weight with me. The Houston Safari Club could – stay with me here – just simply donate that same amount of money to conservation efforts without hunting lions. Maybe photograph them instead, I dunno. Beyond that, I can’t imagine a less sympathetic group right now than a bunch of rich guys whining about not being able to shoot things.

The hogs are winning

So many feral hogs. So much more needed to deal with them.

Texas upped the ante in its battle with feral hogs a year ago when it passed a “pork choppers” law that allows recreational shooters to blast wild pigs from low-flying helicopters.

The state doesn’t track the number of hogs killed by aerial gunners, but a new report from the Texas AgriLife Extension Service clearly shows the prolific pigs are winning the war.

As in all conflicts, there is money to be made.

Some helicopter companies say business is better than they ever imagined for shoots that cost from $1,500 to $2,000.

On the ground, a growing number of trappers, landowners and wholesalers are cashing in on all that free-roaming protein by selling trapped hogs to meat-processing plants.

Some skeptics doubt the effectiveness of the airborne assaults, but Dustin Johnson of Cedar Ridge Aviation in Knox City says the 130 or so shooters he has flown have taken out 3,000 to 4,000 pigs since Sept. 1, 2011, when the helicopter hog hunts were legalized.

“We whack ’em and stack ’em,” Johnson said. “We went to the Paris area in December and killed 600 in one weekend. The landowners were begging us to come back.”

But those numbers amount only to minor casualties in the hog war.

Consider that, in 2010, more than 753,000 feral hogs, or 29 percent of the estimated 2.6 million wild pigs in Texas, were eradicated by some means, according to the new report by AgriLife, which is part of the Texas A&M University system.

With that annual harvest rate, it will take only five years for the Texas feral hog population to double to 5.2 million, said Billy Higginbotham, a wildlife and fisheries specialist and one of the authors of the report.

“We estimate in Texas that you have to remove about 66 percent just to hold the population stable,” he said. “If we remove 750,000 pigs a year, we are still falling behind.”

The report is not available online. As we know, porkchopping has had some effect but not that much. There just aren’t any easy answers for this.

More porkchopping, please

Apparently, shooting feral hogs from a helicopter isn’t as popular a pastime as you might think.

“Number one, the cost is kind of limiting,” said Steve Lightfoot, a spokesman for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, explaining that interest has “leveled out.”

A helicopter shooting trip can cost from $300 to $1,000 per hour, sometimes with a minimum number of hours required.

“It’s kind of expensive, so it’s not really a common thing to do,” said Jim Barnhill, a broker in the El Campo area who arranges helicopter feral hog hunts. “You’ve got to have a pretty thick pocketbook.”


Feral hogs are also learning to avoid the choppers, just as they might run from the sound of a four-wheeler used on land for traditional hunting, Lightfoot said.

“The hogs have gotten smart. They kind of recognized what those rotor sounds mean, and they’ve headed for heavy cover,” he said.

Also, Barnhill said, the hogs are nocturnal, limiting hunting by helicopter to only a couple of hours in the early morning.

Funnily enough, I don’t recall any of these points being made while the porkchopper bill was under consideration. The debate could largely be summed up as “Yeee-haw!” Not that there’s anything wrong with that, and every little bit helps when it comes to feral hogs, but clearly there’s more that will need to be done.

If you can’t beat ’em, eat ’em

Texas Monthly proposes a way to deal with those bothersome invasive species.

Keep your invasive species sweet; you may have to eat them. Late last week StateImpact Texasput together a list of the “Top Ten Invasive Species in Texas.” But what’s the best way to trim back their numbers? Helping eliminate invasives by eating them is an idea that has received a fair amount of press in the past year. “Humans are the most ubiquitous predators on earth,” the Nature Conservancy’s Philip Kramer told Elisabeth Rosenthal of the the New York Times. “Instead of eating something like shark fin soup, why not eat a species that is causing harm, and with your meal make a positive contribution?”

Maybe a large part of the problem is branding. “While most invasive species are not commonly regarded as edible food, that is mostly a matter of marketing, experts say,” Rosenthal wrote. Wenonah Hauter, the executive director of Food and Water Watch, was of that mind: “What these species need now is a better — sexier — profile, and more cooks who know how to use them,” she said.

“The whole outdoors is like a grocery store, if you know where to look,” Cecilia Nasti, the host of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s weekly radio series, “Passport to Texas” and KUT’s “Field and Feast,” told the TM Daily Post. When internal emails circulate through TPWD about the latest invasive species, Nasti said her first question is always ‘Is this something we can eat?’”

In that spirit, we’ve drawn up together our own subjective list, ranking five of Texas’s species by deliciousness and collecting recipes to help you prepare each.

Some of these critters, like the giant tiger shrimp, you may have already seen on your menu. Some, like the feral hog, a/k/a “wild boar”, don’t have a branding problem so much as they have a supply chain problem. There’s so dang many of them that mere hunting and trapping strategies are woefully inadequate. We allow people to shoot these things from helicopters with machine guns in order to try and control their population, for crying out loud. If there were an efficient way to harvest and butcher them, believe me it would be done. Anyway, there’s merit to what they suggest, though good luck to whoever has to come up with an appetizing name for nutria. I just figure that if someone could have come up with a way to make money off of this, they’d have done it by now.

Deer smuggling

I had no idea.

The smuggling operation across the Texas border proved lucrative, netting over $2 million for hauling the undocumented 41 who went by such aliases as “Hit Man” and “Spike.”

But the illegal cargo wasn’t immigrants from Mexico.

It was white-tailed deer, secretly brought into Texas from northern states to breed with native deer in an effort to produce trophy bucks with chandelier-sized antlers.

The imports are illegal as the state tries to protect Texas deer against diseases that could decimate native herds.

When the smuggler — a prominent East Texas deer breeder named Billy Powell — was sentenced three weeks ago to six months home confinement and fined $1.5 million, it sent shock waves through a growing Texas industry.

Some people might find deer-breeding a strange niche, since the state’s deer are so plentiful they can be nuisances, munching on gardens and straying onto roadways.

But Texas game warden Capt. Greg Williford said breeders cater to high-dollar hunters who want that “trophy showpiece for their mantle.”

Just proving that size does indeed matter. You learn something new every day.

Hog hell

Shannon Tompkins gives us an update on the feral hog situation.

Feral hogs seem to be everywhere. At least they are in Texas, where we are cursed with the nation’s largest population (an estimated 1.5-2 million animals and growing) of the amazingly destructive, prolific and adaptable non-native wild swine.

Yes, feral hogs are challenging to hunt and outstanding on the plate. But those are their only positive attributes. They cause more than $50 million a year in losses to Texas agricultural interests, what with their rooting and wallowing and appetites. They probably do that much or more damage to rural and suburban lawns and gardens and other property.

Feral hogs compete with native wildlife for food and space, even eating their neighbors. Biologists call feral swine “opportunistic omnivores,” meaning they’ll eat just about anything they can grab or root from the ground. They are tough on amphibians and reptiles — lizards, frogs, snakes and such — and will devastate turtle nests, as folks along the Atlantic Coast discovered when they found feral hogs plundering egg-laden nests of endangered sea turtles.


With [so many] negatives associated with feral hogs, its no wonder states that are not yet infested with the animals or have small
populations are taking drastic measures to prevent the pigs from establishing or spreading.

North Dakota is the latest state to pass a law making it illegal to import, transport or possess a feral swine; hunt or trap them; sponsor, promote or assist in hunting or trapping feral swine; or profit from the release, hunting or trapping of a feral hog.

A person convicted of violating those prohibitions faces a fine of as much as $5,000 per violation.

North Dakota’s ban on hunting, killing, transporting or releasing feral hogs or profiting in any way from those activities is meant to address the main way feral hogs are expanding their range. People are trapping, hauling and releasing feral hogs to establish populations that can be hunted, and from which money can be made.

Such releases are blamed for the much of the viral-like spread of feral hogs over the past two decades.

By removing economic incentives of establishing a feral hog population (landowners can’t legally charge hunters to hunt the animals; guides can’t charge to take people hog hunting) and even criminalizing possession of the animals, North Dakota hopes to prevent introduction of the destructive swine into their state.

Amazing how much destruction people can cause when they don’t care about the negative effects of their actions on others. Makes it a little easier to understand why we needed legislation to restrict carbon emissions, doesn’t it?

No hog hunting

Bummer. Remember the plan Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack floated to allow bowhunting of feral hogs in George Bush Park, both as pest control and boon for the local food banks? The Army Corps of Engineers, which had say-so on this matter since the park was federally created as a flood control measure, put the kibosh on it.

In a March 19 letter, Richard Long, the supervisory natural resource manager for the Corps’ Houston office, agreed that the park’s feral hog population is a major problem for the Corps, the county, park users and nearby homeowners. But he said a limited archery program probably is not the appropriate solution.

For one thing, he said, a hog that is wounded but not killed could become a serious threat to the hunters, other park users or the people who live near the park. And allowing certain people to hunt would give the appearance of preferential treatment while potentially leading some people to mistakenly believe the entire park is open for public hunting.

“This would create a major enforcement problem for all agencies concerned as well as have a detrimental impact on the wildlife resources of the project,” Long wrote.

Long suggested expanding the trapping program Radack has been operating for more than a decade, which currently removes about 300 to 400 hogs every year.

Ah, well, it was fun while it lasted. On the plus side, this should reduce the chances of Ted Nugent showing up unannounced for some weekend recreation. So perhaps expanding the trapping program is the best way to go.

Them’s good eatin’

Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack has an idea.

Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack has a problem with hungry hogs. Houston has a problem with hungry people.

If Radack gets his way, hundreds of pounds of pork soon could be hitting the needy’s tables.

Radack plans to allow a few select bowhunters to begin targeting the thousands of feral pigs that live in George Bush Park and hopes to donate the meat to food banks, churches, homeless shelters or even needy individuals.

“If you could harness this, it could feed so many people it’s unbelievable,” Radack said.


Off-duty county employees have been allowed to trap hogs at the park for more than a decade, and they typically remove about 300 to 400 every year, [Precinct 3 special activities coordinator Mike] McMahan said. The trappers are responsible for removing the hogs and have been allowed to keep the meat.

But those efforts barely have made a dent in a population that swells so quickly that 50 sows could replace all the hogs that were harvested with just one litter each.


Most of the park’s hogs weigh between 50 and 150 pounds, McMahan said. That translates to about 40 to 120 pounds of steaks, roasts, ribs and ham per animal, said Midway Food Market owner Herman Meyer, who processes 700 to 800 wild hogs a year at an average cost of about $60.

Houston Food Bank spokeswoman Betsy Ballard said the organization would be delighted to receive that much meat. But food safety laws could make such a donation difficult. Texas Department of State Health Services spokesman Doug McBride said food banks could not accept the meat unless the hogs were taken live to a processor with an on-site state or federal food safety inspector.

Hunters for the Hungry, a statewide wild game donation program, does not accept feral hogs because it is too difficult to find a processor who adheres to all the state rules, program coordinator Anitra Hendricks said.

“There’s just not any easy way or profitable way to get a group together to do this,” said Barbara Anderson, state director of the Texas Food Bank Network.

Radack said he will find a way to make the donations work if he has to line individuals up to pick up hogs they will butcher themselves.

“If people catch fish out of sewage-infested waters like Buffalo Bayou and eat them, and people eat out of garbage cans because they are hungry, it seems reasonable to me that there is a way to take lean meat of a feral hog out of the woods and put it on people’s tables so they can have a meal,” he said. “There should be a way to do that and I’m determined to find it.”

Sounds like perhaps a change to state law might be needed to make this practical. If so, Friday was the regular filing deadline for new bills, though one can still be submitted if it gets supermajority approval. Be that as it may, I admire Commissioner Radack’s spirit here, and I hope he succeeds in his quest.