'Pork choppers' go to work today as feral hog season opens
Coincidentally, on the same day that hunters can begin to scour the skies for doves, hunters in helicopters can take aim down on feral hogs.
A new state law goes into effect today that allows people to pay to hunt hogs from helicopters, or what some have nicknamed "pork choppers."
With the new law, Dustin Johnson, owner of Knox City-based Cedar Ridge Aviation, said his business is changing completely. For three years, landowners have been paying him to get rid of hogs by shooting them from helicopters. Now, he said, hunters will be paying him to shoot hogs.
"I am 100 percent fully booked for September," he said, explaining that he has heli-hunting trips scheduled every day.
To be able to hunt hogs by helicopter requires a state permit as a qualified landowner or landowner's agent, said Steve Lightfoot, a spokesman for the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department. To qualify, a person cannot be convicted of a felony or Class A misdemeanor or of the federal Lacey Act, which deals with the illegal transfer of wildlife across state lines.
Helicopter operations must be registered with the state as a wildlife aerial management operation, Lightfoot said. About 130 helicopter services are registered, about 30 more than a year ago, he added.
Johnson said he already has permission from the landowners in Haskell and Knox counties, where most of his hunts take place, and he takes care of the required landowner's agent paperwork.
Safety is his biggest concern, he said, but no training is involved to learn to shoot from the open door of a helicopter.
"I can tell you everything you need to know to shoot out of a helicopter in less than 10 minutes," he said.
"There's zero tolerance on 'no shooting when we say no shooting,'" Johnson said. "If you shoot when we say don't shoot, you're going to find yourself walking — you're kicked out of the helicopter wherever we are."
The helicopter will be banking at times as it flies, Johnson said, and if the helicopter blades are damaged by a shot, the helicopter is going to land "really hard."
As a helicopter flushes hogs out into the open, the pilot maneuvers it into position and tells the hunter when to shoot and when not to shoot.
The helicopter flies about 10 to 20 feet above the ground, and sometimes only 4 to 6 feet.
Hog hunts can last from two hours to all day. Johnson charges $600 per hour with a two-hour minimum. The weapon of choice is the AR-15, a semi-automatic rifle.
Hunting feral hogs by helicopter has helped reduce the hog population, said Russell Flanary, president of Haskell County Hog Control. The association was formed by about 125 landowners who hired Johnson to shoot hogs on their 32,000 acres.
"Before we weren't able to grow milo or anything because of the hogs," Flanary said. "Now we're able to grow milo again. ... We've all tried night hunting, trapping, all types of methods to get rid of hogs, but the helicopter is leaps and bounds better than anything else."
State Rep. Sid Miller, R-Stephenville, who authored the new state law, said hunting via helicopter has
proved to be the best means of controlling hogs.
State agencies estimate there are more than 2 million feral hogs in Texas. According to a Texas Department of Agriculture study, each hog causes between $50 and $500 in damage annually to agriculture and wildlife habitats.
It's a statewide issue, Miller said, not just a rural problem. Hogs have been moving into suburban areas and damaging cemeteries, golf courses and parks, not just crops and fences in the country, he said.
"Landowners have been able to get a permit to do a helicopter hunt prior to the passage of this law," Miller said. "What this does is allows the landowner to sell that seat on the helicopter. Instead of being an expense for the landowner, it will generate some income."
Plus, he said, the bill directed the Parks & Wildlife Department to set guidelines and safety regulations for helicopter hunts. The Texas Parks & Wildlife Commission adopted those last week.
After a few months of hunting hogs by helicopter, landowners in Haskell County said they saw a reduction in the number of hogs.
"We used to have pig trails 40- and 50-feet wide crossing the dirt road, now we see three or four tracks" Flanary said. "By no means do we have the amount of hogs we had before."