20 MILES SOUTH OF ST. GEORGE — Hunters in southern Utah have discovered a new sport: crossing the border into northern Arizona and using packs of dogs to track down wild pigs. And they are not cute little farmyard animals with curly tails.
"They've got tusks anywhere from half an inch to three inches long that are razor sharp and they will slice and dice a dog," said veteran hunting guide Jared Higgins of Richfield. "We've seen some pushing the limit to 500 pounds. I mean, just absolute tanks."
They're also legendary for their ferocity when hunters move in for the kill. "Whenever you get in close proximity to them they are aggressive," Higgins said. "They'll charge you almost every time. Every time we've got in on them, we've shot them right at our feet. You know, do or die."
Arizona wildlife officials are welcoming the hunters with open arms and are even promoting the hunts as a way for hunters to literally bring home the bacon in a time of tight grocery budgets.
Hunters say the meat of the feral pigs, especially the females, is tasty and the hunts make for a challenging sport. But wildlife officials have a different motive for supporting the hunts: they're trying to stop environmental damage. Rapacious wild pigs have now chewed their way through habitat, crops and rangeland in about 40 states. Texas alone reportedly has more than two million wild pigs.
A recent newsletter from the Arizona Game & Fish Department uses blunt language encouraging hunters to go after the pigs. "You'll be doing everybody a favor," the publication said. "They're a four-legged ecological disaster." Federal officials have estimated they cause a billion dollars in damages each year by rooting and wallowing in wildlife habitat and crops. Agricultural officials also worry they'll spread diseases to domestic animals and livestock.
As the feral pigs spread from their original habitat in southeastern states, some wonder if Utah is next on the list. The herd, or "drift," of feral pigs in Arizona, just a few miles from the border, is a worry for Utah officials who want to keep the state free of the rampaging hogs. Although there have been occasional reported sightings in Utah, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources is aware of only one confirmed herd. It's a group of pigs transplanted to a defunct hunting ranch on privately-owned Fremont Island in the Great Salt Lake.
The new hunting hot-spot is the Arizona Strip, a vast, isolated, uninhabited landscape between the Utah border and the Grand Canyon. A typical hunt starts in pre-dawn darkness on unpaved roads leading south out of St. George. As the hunters drive their vehicles into pig territory, hunting hounds sit on the roof and sniff.
"They will actually pick up a scent in the air," Higgins said, "and they'll bark and let us know that they're smelling something they like." If that happens, or if the hunters spot pig tracks crossing the road, the chase is on. Higgins, a houndsman for High-Top Outfitters in Richfield, said the hunts in Arizona started to take off about two years ago after he began leading expeditions into the Arizona Strip. He invited a reporter on a recent hunt that involved two large packs of dogs and a dozen or so hunters, two of whom were on horseback.
The hounds were eager for action, each one outfitted with three electronic collars. "The first one is for behavior; it's a shock collar," Higgins said. "The next one is a G.P.S. transmitter that will tell me where he's at. The third one is telemetry."
The collars also protect the dogs' throats if they get into a scrape with a wild hog. "You can see his many battle wounds from over the years," Higgins said pointing to scars on one of his hunting dogs. "Every now and again they'll get in a tussle. And if the dog doesn't back down they can get hurt."
A year or so ago, a wild pig took out Kenny Jones' horse by charging during a burst of gunfire. "I shot it and it started charging towards me," Jones said. "So I shot it once more. Next thing I know is it disappeared under (my) gray horse. Shot him 3 more times. Finally that boar died right there." The horse survived but it was badly injured by the pig's tusks.
People, dogs and horses cover long distances searching, chasing and cornering the pigs. Higgins coordinates by radio and keeps track of his dogs electronically.
Arizona officials say there are 50 or more feral pigs in the Arizona Strip. Higgins thinks there could be as many as 300, although hunters have substantially reduced their numbers in the last two years.
"They're mainly nocturnal," Higgins said. "They travel a lot at night and they really range far. They can go up to 30 miles a day."
Generally, wild pigs are thought to have descended from European domestic pigs that escaped from, or were released by, Spanish conquistadores in the 1500's. The pigs in the Arizona Strip may have a different history. According to Higgins, the local legend is that they emerged a few years ago when wild Russian Boars escaped from a hunting farm near Mesquite, Nevada and then mated with domestic pigs that ran away from an overturned truck.
The hunters' strategy is for the hounds to corner a hog in rocks or brush. "What we realize is if they go in something thick, you can catch them," Higgins said. "If they just get out on the open ground, they can way outrun a dog."
The recent hog hunt ended with a typical exciting climax. "It was probably like a 14-year-old girl at a Justin Bieber concert; it was pretty wild," said St. George hunter Steve Hatch. "He just come running and the dogs went flying and I just pulled the trigger."
But the first shot didn't drop the pig; he turned and ran toward the hunter. "He turned and I shot him a few more times," Hatch said, "and I finally ended up having to shoot him about four feet away." In all, Hatch said he fired nine pistol shots before the pig finally dropped.