UNADILLA, Ga. (AP) — About 1 a.m. on a near pitch-black night in Dooly County, Iraq combat veteran Rod Pinkston walks slowly to the edge of a small field.
With a shotgun strapped to his back, he peers through a thermal-imaging scope in search of an enemy of the state.
Across the field he has set up a large trap for wild hogs, which the state suspects are the cause of high levels of fecal coliform in Pennahatchee Creek. For the first time, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division is funding the removal of wild hogs to prevent water pollution. Pinkston is contracted to kill 1,000 hogs the state has estimated reside in the area.
Pinkston is approaching his patented trap slowly on foot because there may be stragglers outside, and he hopes to shoot them. Pinkston, owner and founder of Jager Pro Hog Control Systems, adheres to a leave-no-hog-behind philosophy.
About three hours earlier that April night, from a computer in Columbus, he monitored the trap via video camera and determined about 25 hogs were inside. He then triggered the corral-style trap remotely and started heading toward Dooly County.
Most hog traps would use a trip wire the hog would trigger, which also generally means only one hog would be trapped, but hogs live in groups, called sounders. By monitoring the trap remotely, Pinkston can see how many hogs are coming in, determine the size of the sounder, then spring the trap when it looks like he has the whole group inside.
Hogs are such prolific breeders that just shooting or trapping a few won't do much good. It's about like stomping a roach on the kitchen floor and expecting it to make a difference.
"We try to get the whole group," Pinkston said. "Everybody thinks that shooting is the way to solve the problem, but if you don't get them all, you really haven't done anything."
Pinkston, who is accompanied by Jose Gonzalez, also an Iraq combat veteran, doesn't realize he's in for a big surprise when gets to the trap.
Problem may have started with de Soto
Wild hogs are a non-native species that destroy habitat and food for other animals, and therefore get little to no protection from the state, which does not consider them a game animal.
Where game animals have hunting seasons, hogs can be hunted year-round. You can hunt them at night. You can hunt them with lights. You can bait them, trap them and use dogs to track them. Then you can take their carcasses home and have green eggs and ham.
About the only thing you can't do is move live ones, unless they are quarantined and tested for diseases, which is why trapped hogs must otherwise be shot on the spot.
Opinions differ on whether the problem is getting worse. Bobby Bond, senior wildlife biologist for the Department of Natural Resources, said he doesn't know the problem is worse, but the hogs are definitely a problem on the state's wildlife management areas.
"They root up our roads," he said. "They root up our food plots. They do cause havoc."
In 1540, Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto came traipsing up into Georgia from Florida with a massive entourage that included 620 men, 220 horses and about 200 hogs. Some of those hogs are believed to have escaped and were the beginnings of the wild hog population in Georgia and the Southeast.
Through the centuries, more hogs escaped from farms, and the spread may have been accelerated by people relocating them for hunting purposes.
Wild hogs are genetically the same as domesticated hogs, said Michael Mengak, wildlife outreach specialist at the University of Georgia's Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources.
Last year he published a survey of Georgia landowners that he said indicates the problem is growing, although he said there's no way to accurately estimate the population or its growth due to the nomadic nature of hogs.
"People have definitely told us the problem is getting worse," he said. "Generally across the region it seems like there are more and more pigs."
Wild hogs, also called feral hogs, are a particular problem for farmers. The hogs love to eat and root up a wide range of crops. That's also why the trapping season is about over because hogs will have plenty to eat without being drawn into a baited trap.
"They are like vacuum cleaners," Mengak said. "They tear up a lot of land with their rooting."
Farmers taking initiative
Whether the hog population is growing or not, efforts by farmers to combat them certainly are. Farmers have formed the Georgia Feral Hog Working Group to find ways to reduce feral hog damage to crops. The group had input in developing the questionnaire for Mengak's survey.
By taking results of the survey, in which landowners estimated wild hog damage on their property, and extending those figures out, Mengak estimated wild hogs caused $57 million in crop damage in Georgia in 2011 and $81 million in total damage, which includes destruction of timber, food plots and lease value.
Jeff Cook, county agent for Peach and Taylor counties, said farmers there have met recently to discuss the hog problem and options for reducing the population. In fact, Pinkston spoke to them about the best ways to trap.
Cook said the hog problem could be worse in the two counties except for lack of waterways, which hogs need to be near.
Hogs seen more at Robins
Bob Sargent, natural resources manager at Robins Air Force Base, isn't sure there are more hogs, but they certainly are being seen more on base. Part of the reason, he said, may be that oak trees go through a cycle in which every few years the trees produce an unusually large crop of acorns, and this past winter was one of those years.
On the rear side of the base is an area where there was once a residential neighborhood that has been demolished, but there are many large oak trees still there.
"I've been out there at night, and you can just hear them out in the darkness, crunching on acorns," Sargent said.
The base does trapping itself and allows others to get a permit for trapping, with one major concern being the fear of a hog getting on the runway. In the past year, Sargent said 200 hogs were trapped on base, which is more than has been caught in any year since trapping started in 2000.
"They have been more abundant in urban areas of the base than I have seen in the last few years," he said.
Hogs can have three litters in 13 months with six to 10 piglets per litter.
"You've got to take a considerable number of hogs each year just to keep pace with their reproductive output," Sargent said.
The not-so-great escape
As Pinkston approached his trap in Dooly County, his way lit only by a head lamp, he discovered something that had never happened to him before.
On his video camera he counted at least a couple of dozen hogs in the pen. Now there were only 11. He quickly found out why.
The trap enclosure is made of heavy-duty galvanized steel. It looks like it could hold back a Brahma bull. But Pinkston found a spot where hogs had rammed a hole in it and gotten out. The only reason all of the hogs didn't escape, apparently, is that it was so dark they didn't see the hole.
He was more than a little peeved over it. It's not just that he lost those hogs, but hogs are intelligent animals. He carefully lures them into the trap by first putting out a feeder, and after they get comfortable with coming to it, he builds the enclosure around it.
"I'm never going to get those hogs to come into a trap again," he said. "Most people would be doing backflips over that," he said as he motioned to the hogs still in the pen, "but I'm ticked off."
He has to stand at the hole to keep the other hogs from escaping while Gonzalez kills them with a rifle. The last left is a piglet, and Pinkston shoots it. He also uses it as an example as to why people should change the way they think about wild hogs.
"It would be unethical for a hunter to shoot a fawn," he said. "But these hogs are a pest, and people need to think of them that way. If I let that one go, it would turn into that," he said, motioning to the large hogs.
The carcasses will actually help needy families in the area. Pinkston and Gonzalez will gut the animals, put them in refrigeration, then the carcasses will be turned over to local churches that have identified families in need. Unlike deer meat, the law requires that the hogs can only be given whole, so the families will have to do the processing.
It will be some good eating, Pinkston said. Wild hogs actually have a better flavor than domestic hogs because the wild hogs have an all-natural diet, he said.
Once the hogs are dead, the men line them up for a photo, so they can document how many they have killed.
First for the state
Chris Faulkner, grant coordinator for the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, said the Dooly County initiative is a pilot project. If it works in reducing pollution levels in the creek, the state may try it in other areas. The total project will cost $550,000 funded with a federal grant, including a $222,700 local match. Not all of that is for hog removal, however. It also includes such things as water quality monitoring.
The contract calls for Jager Pro to remove 1,000 hogs or substantially reduce the population. Pinkston expects the effort will extend at least into next year. So far they have removed about 100 hogs.
With the trapping season about gone, they will now turn to shooting, in which their military experience really comes into play. Pinkston employs five men, all ex-military, and all except one have combat experience.
Their hunts are serious business and not recreational. They go out at night in three-man teams, using military rifles with thermal-imaging scopes, and employing military tactics. They try to lure an entire sounder into an ambush and take out the whole group in one attack. They stand shoulder to shoulder when they shoot to ensure they don't shoot each other in the darkness.
Gonzalez, who served in the infantry, said it's not just similar to the tactics they used in Iraq to hunt insurgents.
"It's exactly the same," he said.