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Hog wild: Taking down feral pigs in Texas

Apr. 19, 2012 - 03:08PM   |   Last Updated: Apr. 19, 2012 - 03:08PM  |  
From left, recently retired Army Sgt. Nick Bientema, Army Spc. Caleb Redell and the Agriculture Department's Mike Bodenchuk.
From left, recently retired Army Sgt. Nick Bientema, Army Spc. Caleb Redell and the Agriculture Department's Mike Bodenchuk. (Ken Perrotte / Staff)
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the gear

Mossberg MMR: Our pre-production model rifles came in basic black, but Mossberg’s production models will be available in Mossy Oak Treestand and Mossy Oak Brush. Production guns for both tactical and hunter models in .223 Remington are shipping to dealers now. The MSRP is $921, but initial sale prices online are about $760, making it one of the more affordable AR offerings on the market. The rifles have a free-floating, 20-inch carbon steel barrel with 1:9 twist rate and a recessed crown.
Winchester Ammunition’s Razorback XT: The hollow-point ammo is made from 95 percent copper and designed to maintain its integrity when punching through the hog’s thick skin and gristle, and then expand inside. The cartridges have flash-suppressed powder in recognition that the ammo will be popular in AR platforms that may employ night-vision optics.

HONDO, Texas — Mike Bodenchuk's diverse hit squad of skilled shooters, trappers and chopper pilots is trying to assert some measure of control over a seemingly uncontrollable situation afflicting the expansive Texas countryside: A feral hog epidemic.

Bodenchuk is the U.S. Agriculture Department's top feral hog expert in the Lone Star State. From his San Antonio office, he runs a statewide program that leverages federal, state and local expertise to try to lower ever-escalating wild hog populations to more manageable numbers.

Last year, he and his operatives killed more than 24,647 problem swine. Hunters probably killed another 200,000 to 300,000.

But those seemingly impressive numbers are a pittance in terms of the state's infestation of 2.6 million to 2.8 million wild hogs, Bodenchuck says. More than 5 million feral hogs are estimated to roam the U.S., "but that's largely a guess."

California, Florida and Hawaii have the highest hog populations after Texas.

Grabbing a notepad, Bodenchuk draws a graph.

"I presented a paper once that showed the population impacts of a single sow hog," he explains. "Without any mortality, that one hog results in 1,433 hogs after 33 months. The average sow has six piglets, and numbers don't seem to increase rapidly after that first year. But once those second and third litters begin breeding, the population explodes."

While a sow can have up to three litters a year, most have three litters every two years. "Males can breed at eight months; sows can breed once they reach about 30 pounds. The joke in Texas is that the average sow litter is six, and eight piglets survive," Bodenchuk says.

That certainly seems to be reflected in the Texas numbers — from 2007 to 2010, feral hog populations rose 21 percent a year.

Bodenchuk says Texas estimates that each wild hog does about $200 of damage a year to improved pasture land and row crops.

"And that damage doesn't even count other issues such as E. coli bacteria in streams and eating eggs of sea turtles, an endangered species."

Hogs damage the landscape and pastures primarily by rooting. Those with access to row crops can flatten acres overnight. Fencing capable of keeping the porkers out is expensive, and hogs can dig a route under any fence that doesn't extend well belowground.

With Mossberg releasing its new MMR (Mossberg Modern Rifle) — the company's first foray into military-styled AR rifles — just as Winchester Ammunition was launching a line of .223 ammo expressly for hogs, it seemed like prime time to head to South Texas.

The hunt begins

Joining the hunt were Army Spc. Caleb Redell, a wounded warrior at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, and Sgt. Nick Bientema, recently medically retired from the Army for injuries inflicted by an improvised explosive device in Iraq.

Bientema, a Lodi, Calif., native, was one of two soldiers who barely survived the attack on their 3rd Armed Reconnaissance Regiment Stryker that killed four buddies.

Redell was one of three soldiers injured last year when their 34th Infantry Division mine-resistant, ambush-protected all-terrain vehicle triggered the pressure plate of an IED loaded with an estimated 200 pounds of explosives in Laghman province, Afghanistan.

Redell's body was shattered internally. The bones on his right side are largely held together with metal pins, rods, screws and plates.

Bodenchuk arranged for us to hunt the 1,500-acre Koch Ranch, aptly known as "Hog Heaven," about 20 minutes north of Hondo. Mossberg shipped two new Hunter models of the rifles, and Winchester Ammunition chipped in the Razorback XT ammo.

The Mossberg MMR Hunters were outfitted with EOTech EXPS3-0 optics plus G23L three-power magnifiers. At the range prior to the hunt, it was clear the rifles were exceptionally accurate, delivering hot-barrel, sub-MOA groups at 50 yards.

We zeroed about an inch high at 50 yards, which should have let us shoot point blank at any pig because the hunting blinds were all within 100 yards of feeders that employ timers designed to get the usually nocturnal critters up and moving during daylight hours.

The kill shot

Texas' wildflowers were just starting to bloom, and wild turkeys were gobbling their wattles off during the early March hunt, but a freak cold front that dropped temperatures nearly 40 degrees and brought in driving rain and thunderstorms put the usually striking display on hold. The chilly, damp weather also seemed to shut down the hogs for much of the hunt.

We talked over hunt strategies and bullet placement. Wild hogs, especially big boars, have a thick "shield" of skin and gristle over their neck and shoulders that protects their vital organs. One big boar tusker that Bodenchuk's daughter killed two years ago had a nearly 1¾-inch-thick shield.

Bullets need to be able to penetrate this shield and the heavy bone structure underneath to take out the lungs or heart for a mortal hit.

Winchester Ammunition's Razorback XT hollow-point ammo is designed to maintain integrity when punching through, but the rounds weigh just 64 grains, so we tried to head-shoot any big boars, slipping the bullet in just below and behind the ear, taking out either the base of the skull or the spine.

Redell almost had a chance early during his first stint in the comfortable hunting blinds. The hog, likely a boar cruising for sows, approached through cover to the left, showed no interest in the feed and quickly disappeared.

That evening, with about 15 minutes of visibility left before total darkness, a big, reddish-blonde boar appeared about 65 yards away. Its tusks were clearly visible even in the fading light. Bodenchuk said any boar with visible tusks is a trophy.

This boar was headed into a thicket when it stopped for a second and offered a broadside shot. I placed the EOTech optic's red dot just behind and below its left ear and squeezed the MMR's trigger. The hog dropped where it stood. A couple of quick follow-ups ensured it wouldn't recover for a getaway.

A bullet used to finish the hog was recovered fully intact after penetrating the shield and passing through the body before stopping at the opposite shield.

The hog, an estimated 250 to 300 pounds, was a true trophy tusker, according to Bodenchuk's assessment. It sported a mean set of 3¼-inch tusks.

Military hunts

Wild hog problems aren't confined to ranches and farms.

Fort Stewart, Ga., for example, has hundreds of thousands of acres of prime hog habitat. Hogs have been known to tear up golf courses and even roam family housing areas. One Fort Stewart housing resident shared how she was surprised by a brazen, burly hog rooting in her flower bed right by the front door. She was too afraid to open her door to get her children to school.

Other locations in Georgia that allow hunting of large feral hog populations are Robins Air Force Base and Fort Benning. Fort Benning TV posted an excellent video that outlines feral hog challenges to the habitat and training mission — just search for "benning hogs" on YouTube.

Forts Hood and Bliss and Camp Bullis in Texas have ample hog populations. The Navy's Escondido Ranch, managed by Naval Air Station Kingsville, offers lodging as well as hunting of hogs, deer and other species.

Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., lists wild hogs as one of the many species available to hunt on its 280,000 acres open to some form of hunting. The Avon Park Air Force Range also offers hog hunting.

Vandenberg Air Force Base and Fort Hunter Liggett in California are plagued with pigs. At Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., hunters pursuing other game are encouraged to shoot any hogs they see.

Hunting is typically done from stands, spotting and stalking, or with dogs. Check with outdoor recreation staff at most installations to see what opportunities may be available.

The ‘other' other white meat

Wild hogs can be butchered and prepared for the dinner table or barbecue. Old, rutty boars make for the worst eating. With their fearsome tusks, they are more frequently taken as trophies. The tastiest hogs are the youngest. Bodenchuk said piglets that have just been weaned are excellent for the grill. Sows in the 70- to 150-pound range can also be fine dining.

One caution: Wild hogs can carry the trichinella parasite, which causes trichinosis. They can also be infected with toxoplasmosis, caused by another parasite, and brucellosis, an infectious bacterial disease.

Bodenchuk says his studies have shown that about 10 percent of Texas' wild hogs carry trichinella. The key is to ensure the hogs are thoroughly cooked to a temperature of at least 160 degrees throughout. Wear latex or other rubber gloves when handling or field-dressing wild pigs.

Don't expect meat from feral hogs to look and taste like the best center-cut pork chops from the supermarket. Most wild hogs are opportunistic eaters whose diets bear no resemblance to those of farm-raised pigs. Exceptions may include wild hogs that have been lavishing themselves with a sustained diet of grain crops.

Ken Perrotte is a Military Times outdoors writer.

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