Politics & Government

Wild hogs can now be shot from helicopters in North Carolina

Three hogs stand on a pallet in their sty. The hogs are former wild boar.
Three hogs stand on a pallet in their sty. The hogs are former wild boar. abennett@newsobserver.com

They ravage crops, attack each other and mate prolifically. Now wild hogs can be culled by aircraft in North Carolina — provided they are shot by federal or state wildlife control officers.

The 2016 North Carolina Farm Act, which lawmakers passed July 1, contains two sentences making the change.

"Across the country we use helicopters," said Keith Wehner, U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Service North Carolina director. "It's a really useful tool when you need to get beyond roads."

In the 1500s, Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto introduced an Old World species of wild hogs to Florida for food. These days they're everywhere. Ranging from 150 to 250 pounds, they congregate in rowdy groups. They boast razor-like tusks sharpened by constantly gnashing their teeth.

Recently, they've ravaged the region and nationally they cause up to $1.5 billion in annual damage and control costs, according to the USDA. Disease is also an issue. Three years ago, North Carolina was ground zero for PEDv — the highly contagious porcine diarrhea virus. Since April 2013, PEDv has killed an estimated 10 percent of America's hog population. North Carolina's $11 billion-a-year pork industry, which employs more than 46,000 people, has felt the threat.

"Feral swine are a major health risk to domestic herds," said Angie Maier, N.C. Pork Council director of policy development. "They carry nasty diseases. If that transmits into the barns, and a domestic herd is infected, it could shut down trade."

To fight back, USDA officials targeted wild hogs in 2015, budgeting $20 million a year. North Carolina received $380,000 and unleashed a host of wildlife control techniques including thermal scopes, trapping and electric hog calls.

But more was required. Female hogs have roughly one-and-a-half litters of five to six pigs per year. There's no effective birth control. And they're highly adaptive. "To address this, we needed the best," Wehner explained. "North Carolina's wild pig population is dispersed across the state. Two-thirds of it lends itself to aerial gunning. Aerial gunning was the best solution."

North Carolina, along with Virginia, were the only states in the continental United States that didn't allow the federal government to use aerial culling. Wehner approached the Virginia House of Delegates, who changed that state's law early this spring, with a law as short and simple as North Carolina's provision.

In Raleigh, he approached the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, which then turned to the General Assembly. "The Wildlife Resources Commission called our attention to a program that will let them partner with the federal government to cull feral hogs from an aircraft," Sen. Brent Jackson, a Sampson County Republican and sponsor of the farm act, wrote in an email. "The Commission indicated that this would be a valuable tool and asked that we change the statutes to allow them to participate in the program."

With the law just recently passed, Wehner sees a modest start for the program. The USDA has already secured permission for a federally owned Hughes, red and white, two-seat "little bird" helicopter to fly a two-week mission to North Carolina from an airbase in Bowling Green, Kentucky. For this, he's budgeted roughly $40,000. The USDA sharpshooter inside will use 12-gauge with buckshot. "The window for this is when the leaves are down and when the deer season ends, so no hunters are around," Wehner said. Under the program, the USDA negotiates with farmers and landowners to assure everyone is on board with the helicopter shooting.

Locally, the Wildlife Resources Commission wants to make clear this is not hunting. "That's an incorrect term," said Ashton Godwin, the Wildlife Resources Commission's legislative liaison. "It's culling for wildlife management — not sport. We have no intention to open this to the public."

Some lawmakers wondered about that when debating the Farm Act late last month. Texas, for instance, has a wild hog problem and allows open hunting. This has allowed for a cottage industry of helicopter hunting. Outfits like "Heli-Hunters" and "Helibacon" offer shooting experiences at $15,000 for a six-hour hunt featuring six to eight gunners. The hunts include ammunition, a professional pilot, training, a recovery team to collect pigs and an edited video of the hunt.

Wehner dismissed this type of hunting. "The new law does not open the door to that type of stuff. And thank God in my opinion," he said. "I've seen shooters with their shoulders all black and blue. This is not sport. It is a job."