The helicopter doors are off, the hunters are in position, and the wild hog is running for its life. The pilot swings the chopper around so it’s just a few feet off the ground.
“Clear to fire! Clear to fire!”
When the hunters let loose on the hog, they're doing so largely for sport — but they're also helping Texas farmers take out a major pest.
Feral hogs became an internet meme in August, when a tweet about shooting 30 to 50 hogs with a semi-automatic rifle went viral. What started as a debate around one of America’s most polarizing topics — assault weapons — became many people’s introduction to a very different problem: Feral hogs are one of the most destructive invasive species in the U.S.
But to Texans, feral hogs are nothing new — and they’re no joke.
“The problem is extremely serious,” said Olivia Johnson, co-owner and business manager of helicopter outfit Cedar Ridge Aviation in Knox City, Texas. “It would be like if you woke up and there was 3 million rats living in your house. You wouldn't live with them. You wouldn't just say, ‘Oh, well, welcome to my home.’”
The hogs are a menace to the environment and agriculture alike, and cause roughly $1.5 billion in damage each year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They tear up crops and property, eat endangered species, and spread diseases to livestock and humans. The USDA estimates there are about 6 million hogs across the U.S., but some experts put the number closer to 9 million.
Roughly half of the hogs live in Texas, where people can't kill them quickly enough to manage the population. So in 2011, the state made it legal for helicopter companies to take anyone — even tourists — hunting from the sky.
“Helicopter hunting is the quickest way to kill a bunch of pigs," Dustin Johnson, an owner and pilot at Cedar Ridge Aviation, said.
Now, companies sell seats to thrill-seeking tourists for as much as $5,000 per person. Cedar Ridge charges about half that, hosting guests from as far as Australia and China.
On the day VICE News visited, two hunters from Amarillo, Texas, killed 54 pigs in one go. Overall, helicopter hunting killed 43,000 pigs in the state last year, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. That’s only about 1-2% of Texas’s hog population.
Dustin Johnson acknowledges that some object to killing dozens of pigs from helicopters, and says those people have never fought the pig problem in Texas.
But Bubba Ortiz, a hog trapper in New Braunfels, Texas, isn’t a fan of their approach.
“I'd prefer to take them alive than dead, because when they're dead, I want to do something with the meat,” said Ortiz, a Pueblo Nation member with Tigua and Acoma Sky City heritage. He sends hogs to certified hunting ranches or to meat processors for shipment overseas, where wild boar is a more popular menu item.
Ortiz said he trapped 417 hogs within the city limits of San Antonio in 2017, and another 300 in the county.
“I don't hate the pigs,” Ortiz said. “I'm not a big fan of the pigs cause they're just so destructive. But I look at them like a good adversary.”