The next morning, Tom shows me some flash photographs of the feeding station taken by a sensor camera about a half-hour after we left. In the pictures, a dozen feral pigs of all sizes are chowing down on corn.
To be sold commercially as meat, wild hogs must be taken alive to one of nearly 100 statewide buying stations. One approved technique for capturing hogs is snaring them with a noose-like device hanging from a fence or tree; because other wildlife can get captured, the method has fewer advocates than trapping, the other approved technique. Trappers bait a cage with food meant to attract wild hogs but not other animals (fermented corn, for example). The trapdoor is left open for several days, until the hogs are comfortable with it. Then it’s rigged to close on them. Trapped pigs are then taken to a buying station and from there to a processing plant overseen by U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors. According to Billy Higginbotham, a wildlife and fisheries specialist with the Texas AgriLife Extension Service, 461,000 Texas wild hogs were processed between 2004 and 2009. Most of that meat ends up in Europe and Southeast Asia, where wild boar is considered a delicacy, but the American market is growing, too, though slowly.
Wild hog is neither gamy nor greasy, but it doesn’t taste like domestic pork, either. It’s a bit sweeter, with a hint of nuttiness, and is noticeably leaner and firmer. Boasting one-third less fat, it has fewer calories and less cholesterol than domestic pork. At the LaSalle County Fair and Wild Hog Cook-Off held each March in Cotulla, 60 miles northeast of the Mexican border, last year’s winning entry in the exotic category was wild hog egg rolls—pulled pork and chopped bell peppers encased in a wonton. But there were far more entries in the barbecue division; this is Texas, after all.
“There’s not much secret to it,” insists Gary Hillje, whose team won the 2010 barbecue division. “Get a young female pig—males have too strong a flavor—50 or 60 pounds, before she’s had a litter, before she’s 6 months old. Check to make sure it’s healthy; it should be shiny and you can’t see the ribs. Then you put the hot coals under it and cook it low and slow.”
The LaSalle County Fair also includes wild hog events in its rodeo. Five-man teams from eight local ranches compete in tests of cowboy skills, though cowboys are rarely required to rope and tie hogs in the wild. “But we might chase one down, rope it and put it in a cage to fatten it a couple months for a meal,” says a grinning Jesse Avila, captain of the winning 2010 La Calia Cattle Company Ranch team.
As the wild hog population continues to grow, Texas’ love-hate relationship with the beasts veers toward hate. Michael Bodenchuk, director of the Texas Wildlife Services Program, notes that in 2009 the state killed 24,648 wild hogs, nearly half of them from the air (a technique most effective in areas where trees and brush provide little cover). “But that doesn’t really affect the total population much,” he adds. “We go into specific areas where they’ve gotten out of control and try to bring that local population down to where the landowners can hopefully maintain it.”
In the past five years Texas AgriLife Extension has sponsored some 100 programs teaching landowners and others how to identify and control wild hog infestations. “If you don’t know how to outsmart these pigs, you’re just further educating them,” says Higginbotham, who points to a two-year program that reduced the economic impact of wild hogs in several regions by 66 percent. “Can we hope to eradicate feral hogs with the resources we have now? Absolutely not,” he says. “But we’re much further along than we were five years ago; we have some good research being done and we’re moving in the right direction.”
For example, Duane Kraemer, a professor of veterinary physiology and pharmacology at Texas A&M University, and his team have discovered a promising birth control compound. Now all they have to do is figure out a way to get wild hogs, and only wild hogs, to ingest it. “Nobody believes that can be done,” he says. Tyler Campbell, a wildlife biologist with the USDA’s National Wildlife Research Center at Texas A&M-Kingsville, and Justin Foster, a research coordinator for Texas Parks and Wildlife, are confident there must be a workable poison to kill wild hogs—though, once again, the delivery system is the more vexing issue. Campbell says the use of poison is at least five to ten years away.