On a recent Saturday morning, in a gravel parking lot under a highway overpass, Nick Dornak manned a foldout table and waited for drivers to roll by.
Dornak wasn’t a kid selling lemonade. He was an ecologist collecting pig tails.
The Caldwell County Feral Hog Task Force, a volunteer group Dornak started two years ago, is now at the forefront of the state’s patchwork effort to control the wild swine population boom that is hurting farmers, frustrating hunters and poisoning the water in some beloved Central Texas streams and creeks.
Dornak was running the task force’s monthly feral hog bounty claim — hunters and trappers get $5 for every tail or receipt for a hog sale they turn in — when he set up his table across the street from the hallowed Texas barbecue hall that is Kreuz Market.
Kreuz and other pork-serving establishments use a different kind of oinker for their short ribs. Domesticated pigs are like Babe: pink, round and thinly furred. Feral hogs are like Chewbacca: dark, muscular and hairy. And they’re big. A man in Stephenville caught a 790-pounder on his ranch this year.
While many people are familiar with the havoc feral hogs have wreaked in recent years on the agricultural industry by eating crops and digging ruts in fields that can break farm equipment, Dornak, the coordinator of the Plum Creek Watershed Partnership, came to the subject from a different angle.
“The hogs use streams and rivers as highways, which is a really, really big environmental issue,” he said. “They defecate in and near the water, and we’re talking tens of thousands of pounds of feral pig manure in the state of Texas.”
As a result, the E. coli level in Plum Creek is now three to five times higher than what is considered safe for recreational activities like swimming, Dornak said.
The task force, which has received about $100,000 in funding from the county and state, runs the bounty for hunters, provides vouchers for farmers to buy traps, contracts with a helicopter operator that lets veterans shoot swine from the sky and manages three “smart traps,” enormous smartphone-controlled corrals that can trap entire sounders, or families, of hogs at once.
Their efforts have resulted in 8,300 silenced swine in Caldwell County, one of the most afflicted areas in the hog boom that began about 20 years ago. Dornak says it’s the only county-based group of its kind in Texas, and he has been invited to speak in other areas of the state about tackling the problem from the local level.
“We’re kind of the shining star in the state as far as feral hog control,” he said.
Hogs were first introduced to North America by Spanish settlers who set domestic pigs free into the woods so that they could breed freely and be harvested by the colonizers in times of need. In other words, America’s feral hog problem began intentionally.
The breed common in Texas is a variation of the Sus scrofa species, a mix of those colonial European hogs and “Russian boars” that were brought over in the 1930s for sport hunting, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department website.
They are prodigious procreators. Sows typically bear one litter per year of four to six but are capable of producing two litters per year, with litter sizes of up to 12. That reproduction rate is why their population growth is so difficult to control. Dornak said Texans need to take down about 70 percent of the state’s feral hogs just to keep the number where it is.
Dornak says they can make for satisfying meals when handled properly, which requires extra care when it comes to food safety and cooking temperatures because they can carry harmful diseases.
“They’re not bred for meat like a domestic hog is. They’re leaner for the most part,” he said. “But it’s pork.”
What the hog loses on the dinner plate, it gains in the crosshairs. The state imposes almost no regulations on hunting the animal, allowing camo-clad Texans to have at it day and night — winter, spring, summer and fall — and in almost any part of the state.
On the hunt
The lack of regulation is meant to encourage a hunting frenzy. Travis Fairchild is doing his part. He turned in a bag of 43 tails at the most recent bounty claim.
Fairchild, who lives in the Gonzales County town of Harwood, said he and his buddies hunt on his family’s property once a week with AR rifles. They usually bag about four per outing.
“We go out at night with night vision,” he said. “They don’t come out at day.”
Fairchild, 43, goes out looking for the hogs, but many hunters only slay swine so they can focus on their real targets, deer. The hogs often get into corn feeders meant to attract the deer, so the hunters set up traps to keep them away from their hunting ground.
Terry Summers, 49, lives in Bastrop and manages several traps, including two on a friend’s ranch in Caldwell County where they shoot deer. The traps are usually large pens with feed on the far side from the opening of the pen. Also on that far side is a tripwire that shuts the door behind them. Summers says his largest trap can net up to 20 hogs.
Trappers either shoot the hogs in the pen or, if they’re hoping to sell them, back a truck up to the pen and load them in. Trying to handle the animals, which are aggressive, strong and quick, is something to avoid.
“The mama hogs, when she’s got babies, that’s one that you really got to worry about. They will take you down, and they don’t want to lick at you, either, like a puppy dog,” he said. “They’re fast as lightning.”
Those in the hog world share horror stories of facing the beasts. Summers said he once accidentally trapped himself in a pen with one and hurt his back while leaping over the fence.
“The wild hogs, they pop their jaws, they snap their teeth against each other,” he said. “It’s a distinctive sound. Once you hear it, you’ll never forget it.”
Dornak said he’s only had one close encounter with a feral hog, and it’s not a scenario he encourages anyone to replicate.
“At 2 o’clock in the morning, I was intoxicated and in flip-flops and wielding a shotgun,” he said. “I was showing off for the folks around the campfire and almost had my legs taken out by one.”