Not so different from extreme sports like heli-skiing and heli-hiking, helicopter hunting expeditions or "aerial deprivation" missions to slim down wild boar populations may be the latest trend in hunting.
And in Texas, which has made it legal to for the public to hunt wild hog from low-flying helicopters, it’s open-season all year 'round.
From Jefferson County, Tex. to Culpeper, Va., farmers, ranchers and landowners are counting on a new breed of hunter to face the challenge of winnowing down the feral hog population plaguing giant swathes of the Southwest, Southeast with recently reported sightings as far north as Wisconsin and as far west as California.
Those hunters are now heading to Texas after the state declared October "Get the Hogs Outta Texas" month.
After last year’s Hog Outta Texas Challenge, where the local government offered grants and other incentives to informal local militias of hunters to track down the pigs through traditional on-the-ground methods, Lone Star State politicians decided to step it up and lift a ban from shooting animals from helicopters.
This year they've given the green light for helicopters or “pork-choppers,” to enhance the effort -- adding a definite élan to this year's challenge running officially from Oct. 1 through Dec. 31. And hunters are ponying up big bucks -- about $500 an hour -- for the privilege of participating.
The pigs are prolific -- reproducing every 115 days with up to 12 in a litter. Experts say shooting even 60 percent of them will only maintain the current population in Texas where they range from 2.6 to 3.9 million.
Part of the switch up to “pork choppers” is that the effort is much more efficient in cutting down the population of feral hogs that seem to be cropping up with alarming frequency.
But it’s not cheap.
Federal, state and local governments have contracted professional helicopter operators to swoop in when the budget allows. Private landowners have also tried to use helicopters, but none have the resources to support consistent efforts to rid them of the pest.
Now some of the cost is being picked up by volunteer hunters who purchase heli seats to the tune of $475 per hour to track down millions of feral hogs prancing around Texas’ plains and farms. The Texas Department of Agriculture will sweeten the pot by awarding grants to the five Texas counties with the most hogs removed and most participation in the in feral hog abatement programs.
Mike Morgan, president of Houston-based Vertex, treats the issue seriously, and doesn’t call it a sport. He says the correct phrase is “aerial deprivation” and the technique has been implemented and legal for nearly 10 years under the strictest state regulations. His company regularly performs aerial deprivation programs of coyotes, bobcats and feral hogs.
He says not just anyone can hop into a helicopter and start shooting. Vertex requires shooters to take a $350 hunting safety course before they book a hunt, Morgan, a former Army helicopter pilot said, “You don’t want just any yahoo shooting from the helicopter – we’ve seen inexperienced people accidentally shoot the rotors crashing copters or flying into power lines.”
So far, Morgan reports 100 hunters have taken the course, and more 15-person classes are already filled. "These are people who are really, really serious about shooting things," Morgan said, noting that hunters from New York City, Missouri and Kansas have taken the course, which includes a four-hour class and 30 minutes of learning airborne target practice.
Vertex allows one shooter at a time or one weapon per aircraft aboard his fleet of two dedicated helicopters. “More than that and you are risking an accident, possibly fatal,” he says.
Morgan’s Vertex is not alone. At last count 178 companies applied for permits to conduct shoots, but Vertex is currently the only company in the U.S. that requires hunters to take a safety course before heading out in a helicopter to track down the hogs.
City slickers may never set eyes on them, but feral hogs devastate farms, forests, wildlife habitats, not to mention beaches causing about $500 million in damages annually, including $52 million in agricultural damages, vehicle collisions with feral hogs cost about $1,200 per accident and control efforts have consistently cost about $7 million.
Listed as an invasive species, the hogs have been spotted roaming through the dense vegetation of Florida, the farms of Texas, West Virginia, with new reports of their arrival in Wisconsin, while officials in Maryland are being extra vigilant and taking precautions.
Morgan was recently called by the State of Kentucky to implement an “aerial deprivation” program there.
"Not only are feral hogs a costly nuisance to agricultural operations and wildlife habitats, but they are increasingly finding their way into urban areas and destroying residents' yards, public parks, golf courses and more," says Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples.
What about all that good hog meat going to waste?
Says Morgan, given the size of the creatures – 400-500 lbs – hunters are not likely to be taking any trophies home, but the feral hogs are a delicacy in Europe. If the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in the heart of Texas, this could be the next biggest industry in the country – doing good while dining well.