Even before the fastest highway in the U.S. opened, collisions began. Feral hogs were on the move.
Police report at least four such wrecks on the 85 mile (137 kilometer) per hour stretch since traffic began flowing Oct. 24. Texas A&M University professor Billy Higginbotham offered a sympathetic ear when roadway managers called him weeks earlier about the pigs, which can top 400 pounds (180 kilograms).
“They said, ‘We’ve already hit seven or eight pigs at a maximum speed of 45 mph, so what’s going to happen when people are driving 80 or 85,’” said Higginbotham, who has studied feral hogs for 25 years. Workers were testing the $1.3 billion part of State Highway 130, an Austin bypass for Dallas-San Antonio traffic, before opening it when the accidents happened.
The threat posed by high-speed wrecks is just the latest wrinkle in a losing battle with the animals, first brought to the region by European colonists. Last year, state lawmakers authorized hunting wild pigs from helicopters. Caldwell County, which the road crosses, pays a $2-a-tail bounty. Still, the Texas feral hog population has swelled to about 2.5 million and can grow 20 percent a year. That offers no comfort to drivers.
“At 85 mph, there’s not much time to react and those hogs are built solid,” said Guadalupe County Sheriff Arnold Zwicke, who shot three of the animals on his farm near Seguin this month, including a 300-pound sow. He said there have been four collisions with pigs on the new toll road since it opened in his county. No one was killed or seriously injured, he said.
“Unless there’s a bumper guard, we see a lot of damaged vehicles and usually deceased hogs splattered across the road,” Zwicke said. Caldwell County road crews brought in 46 pig tails in the past two weeks from traps set near the highway, said Nick Dornak, coordinator of the Plum Creek Watershed Partnership. The nonprofit group based in Lockhart promotes clean water.
Feral pigs have been documented in all but one of the state’s 254 counties and outnumber their 1.4 million cousins in domestic production on about 500 farms, the Texas Pork Producers Association says. The wild variety congregate around rivers and other water sources while avoiding people by moving at night.
Wild hogs are concentrated in California and across the South from Texas to Florida, according to the National Feral Swine Mapping System. Described by the state as “extremely adaptable,” the bristling beasts average about 120 pounds and evolved from farm animals that made it into the wilds and Eurasian boars, brought to the region to be hunted.
Perhaps the most famous example of the breed, nicknamed Hogzilla, was killed in 2004 near Alapaha, Georgia. The animal was later estimated to weigh 800 pounds and measured about 8 feet (2.4 meters) long, according to the National Geographic Society in Washington. It had a record 18-inch tusk.
In Texas, the animals cause more than $50 million in farm-related costs annually, plus millions of dollars more in uprooted golf courses and green spaces, according to Higginbotham and Texas A&M colleagues in College Station.
“Hogs can tear up a 10-acre corn plot in one night,” said Gary Dickinson, a sales manager for DuPont Co.’s Pioneer seed unit in Lockhart. He said he knows farmers in southeast Texas who’ve quit growing corn because of damage done by the animals.
“With corn at $7 a bushel, and yields of 100 bushels per acre, that’s $700 lost, plus another $300 in seed expense,” including planting and fertilizing each acre, Dickinson said.
“The numbers are just tremendous.”
Invasive species from Europe and Asia threaten trees, fish stocks and utilities in the U.S. One, the Caspian Sea zebra mussel, was responsible for about $5 billion in damage annually, according to an Environmental Protection Agency study in 1998. Dutch elm disease, a fungal infection from Europe, has killed 40 million American trees. Asian carp, a fast-growing fish, threatens the Great Lakes ecosystem, according to the agency.
Carp sometimes leap from the water and collide with boats and their passengers, yet the sheer size of feral hogs puts them in a different class.
Caldwell County hunters have turned in about 300 tails since October, when a Cabela’s Inc. sporting-goods store in Buda and other local merchants offered $1,000 in prizes for the most kills, Plum Creek’s Dornak said. He said two-thirds of existing hogs need to be taken each year just to prevent growth, and the current kill rate is less than a third.
At the 1,100-acre Luling Foundation Farm in the county, manager Mike Kuck pointed out holes dug up in recent nights by hogs lured by pecans and the roots of native grasses.
“If you are driving a tractor over this field and ran into these deep holes, it jars your teeth and often damages your equipment,” Kuck said. “It’s 100 times worse than moles in your yard.”
A test project in 2006-2007 with 60 Texas landowners showed aggressive trapping of wild pigs could cut farm-related damage by about 70 percent, Higginbotham said. Feral sows average 1.5 litters of about six piglets a year, according to Texas A&M studies, making it tough to keep their numbers from growing.
Too many farmers and ranchers in Texas, where 97 percent of land is privately owned, fear liability issues from airborne hunters, said Mike Morgan, president of Vertex Tactical Aviation Inc. of Houston. He offers helicopter flights for hunters at as much as $600 an hour, after a mandatory $350 safety course.
“We can take out from 35 to 100 pigs in a few hours, depending on the property, location and time of day,” Morgan said. “We have a harder time with landowners than hogs.”
The newly opened 41-mile toll-road stretch, built by units of Ferrovial SA and Zachry Corp. and run as a concession, costs as much as $8.21 for a passenger car to travel its length. Highway operators are putting up wildlife-crossing signs to warn drivers, said Chris Lippincott, a spokesman.
Curbing the hog threat probably will require toll-road officials and the state to work with neighboring landowners on trapping the pigs and erecting stronger fences or barricades, Higginbotham said.
There’s little reason to believe feral pigs won’t outsmart people, as they have for hundreds of years, said Jay Wallace, a machinist and hunter in Splendora. He has taken more than two dozen of the animals over 15 years and butchered them for hams, steaks and sausage.
“I’ve eaten feral hog my whole life,” DuPont’s Dickinson said in Lockhart. “They are good eating.”
Culinary interests aside, Wallace said, “until you see a wild boar attacking a dog or, God forbid, a small child, people really aren’t going to get very serious about getting rid of them.”