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Saturday, October 1, 2011

Hog Hunting Means Money for Texas Operators

By Pat Gray

Stuffed hogs provide target practice for hunters.  Photo by Eric Lewis

As one person referred to shooting a feral hog from a helicopter: “This is a hunters trifecta!” Hunting, hogs and a helicopter—all at one time. Texas is the only state in the U.S. that will allow any wild animal to be killed from a helicopter. That animal is the feral hog, sometimes referred to by Texas land owners as the “400-lb rat.”

Texas House Bill 716, Section 43-102 took effect on Sept. 1, 2011. It is the authorizing document for a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD)-administered program. The actual name of the bill is the Texas Hog Depredation Act, but is fondly referred to by Texans as the “Pork Chopper” bill. TPWD has had an aerial shooting authorization in effect prior to HB 716, but it was somewhat convoluted and placed the cost of depredation directly on the land owner. Many could not afford the price. This new bill relieves the private owner of the cost, which basically will transfer to the shooters or hunters, who will be paying for the privilege of shooting from a helicopter.

Why such drastic action by state lawmakers? There’s a simple answer. These wild porkers are taking over the state’s agricultural land and are even moving into the outskirts of some urban areas. We’re talking millions of hogs here, not just a few thousand. Less than 10 years ago the estimate of the Texas feral hog population was 2.2 million and today it is over 4 million and climbing rapidly. Texans can brag that they have over half the feral hog population of the U.S. within state borders.

A hog assassin preparing for his first airborne hunting trip.  Photo by Eric Lewis

In Texas, feral hogs cause more than $400 million in damages to crops, fences, irrigation ditches, livestock, wildlife, golf courses and even yards each year. They carry a number of diseases, some of which are transferable to humans and livestock. Hog brucellosis, pseudo-rabies, tuberculosis, trichinosis, hog cholera, anthrax, tularemia, six varieties of stomach worms, Lyme disease—and of course fleas, ticks and lice—are all part of the package. And they almost breed exponentially.

Enter the helicopter. Of all the methods tried for control such as no season, no limit hunting, trapping and snaring, the helicopter and aerial shooting have proven to deliver the best results. As an example, ground hunting usually produces a kill of six to eight per hour or, at best, 60 hogs a day. Helicopter shooting, on a good day, could produce 30 per hour. Even with those statistics, aerial shooting for the past 12 months has resulted in an estimated kill of only 70,000 hogs, a drop in the bucket, so far. The new regulations should elevate that number.

The word is getting out to the hunting community nationwide and there appears to be no limit to the number of hunters just waiting to get their first “Pork Chopper.” Helicopter operators are reporting inquiries from every state including Alaska and Hawaii. One such operator, Vertex Heliservices of Houston—already an experienced aerial hunting company—has established a social media marketing program along with a traditional program aimed specifically at safety and training for the average hog hunter who is stepping into a new and unfamiliar world of shooting from a moving aerial vehicle at a moving target.

Mike Morgan is the president and owner of Vertex. A seasoned Army veteran with two tours of duty in central Asia as an OH-58 Scout Pilot, he is also a lead pilot for an EMS operation in the Houston area. Steeped in low-level flight (nap of the earth, if you will) with hundreds of hours of combat and training experience, Morgan has combined his knowledge and skill of civilian and military operations into a hands-on experience for would be aerial hog hunters.

His Aerial Hunters safety course is a gem of a syllabus covering a myriad of related subjects that greatly affect the outcome of a safe and successful hunt. I was privileged to attend the class and learn first-hand the ins and outs of shooting feral hogs from very low altitudes. Space will not permit a complete coverage of all that is presented during the course, but here are a few highlights.

An instructor shows prospective hog hunters the proper method for handling a gun while in a helicopter.  Photo by Pat Gray

Class starts with the students signing a hold harmless agreement stating that basically, this is a hazardous undertaking and the helicopter operator does not want to be liable for hazards above and beyond his insurance coverage, which is a bit higher than the usual. He then goes into a series of lectures explaining hog culture, characteristics, diseases and hog populations. This is followed by more lectures on aerial hunting safety rules and Texas hunting laws (as many of the students are from out of state). The really hot topic covered in the course is gun handling around and in the helicopter. An example is that most of us have been taught to keep our gun muzzles pointed upward when not shooting. It is just the opposite here. Muzzles must be pointed down at the ground at all times lest we shoot the helicopter down.

The only weapon Vertex allows for hog hunting is the semi-automatic AR-15. This rifle meets all the needs for the job. It fires a.223-caliber bullet that has enough shock power to down an adrenaline-charged hog. The gun sight of choice is a zero magnification red dot that can be put on the target with both eyes open.

The class then progresses to aerial ballistics. The instructor for this subject is Chase Roberts, a very knowledgeable gun guru who seems to have forgotten more than I ever knew about guns. He covers friction, drag, bullet drop, Coriolis effect, air resistance, gravity, yaw-angle, projectile drift, gyroscopic precession, rotor downwash error—even trajectory shift and a lot more.

This is followed by a few more lectures covering firing at the hog, where to try to hit the hog, and the over-kill policy. Students are then led out to the hangar and begin practice on how to get in and out of the helicopter while it is running. This is done with an AR-15 to simulate the actual drill.

The students are then transported to the Vertex live fire range where each student gets to fire 30 rounds from the helicopter at a stuffed target hog. Upon completion the hunters are given a certificate of training and are qualified to go on hog hunts with Vertex. The cost of the training program is currently set at $350 and the cost of the actual hunt depends on the amount of flying and standby time used.

There are other helicopter operators scattered throughout Texas who are cashing in on the hog bonus. Regardless, any helicopter operator who wants to shoot hogs must have a TPWD permit. There is some accountability there and of course, some paperwork, but the TPWD does not set safety standards. So far, that is left up to the helicopter operators. One operator, Cedar Ridge Aviation, with operations near Abilene, works hog shooting in with cattle herding. Dustin Johnson, the owner, also operates a complete hunting lodge with guided tours to hunt deer and other game by ground, not helicopters. Dustin says HB 716 is the best thing that has happened to helicopter operators in Texas.

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