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Hogs on the loose in Northwest Austin

Wednesday, May 20, 2009 by Bill McCann

Concerned that the growing presence of feral hogs in far northwest Austin neighborhoods may pose health and safety risks to residents, the City of Austin is planning to take out a contract on the porcine pests. Two contracts actually.

The City Council is scheduled on Thursday to consider two contracts with the Texas AgriLife Extension Service (which operates through the Texas A&M System) to trap and kill wild hogs, which are rooting through some neighborhoods near city-owned preserves and other wild lands. Affected neighborhoods include Jester Estates, Grand Hills, and Long Canyon.

Feral hogs have become a problem in many parts of the state, typically in rural areas. But in Austin’s case, large tracts of protected areas close to residential subdivisions remain an attraction to all kinds of wildlife.

The dry weather, which limits food supply in the wilds, is forcing animals out of the wild lands into neighborhoods in search of food, said Daryl Slusher, assistant director for environmental affairs and conservation at the Austin Water Utility, which oversees city-owned wild lands. The hogs, which are offspring of domestic hogs gone wild, forage at night in the neighborhoods and return to the wilds to hide out during the day.

The animals especially are attracted to places “where people feed deer and where there are lush lawns,” Slusher said. (It’s illegal to feed deer in the city of Austin.)

City officials say they are stepping in partly because some residents, upset by wild hogs tearing up their yards, have threatened to take matters into their own hands. Some residents reportedly have been trying to trap the hogs themselves. Although there are no reports of injuries to people, city officials say they don’t want to take any chances.

“We are concerned that someone will get injured by trapping and shooting the animals, and once the animal is destroyed there is a potential health issue,” said William Conrad, environmental conservation division manager at the Austin Water Utility. 

“So we are proposing to bring in experts who know how to deal with these animals, and how to track them back into the wilds where they come from, rather than deal with them in neighborhoods,” Conrad said. City staff members have met with several neighborhood groups this spring about the problem, and have urged people not to try to dispatch the animals themselves, but to call 3-1-1 to report sightings, Conrad added.

One of the contracts up for Council consideration calls for the city to hire a specialist through the Extension Service to be on hog call to track, trap and kill the beasts. The cost would be $200 a day, with the city spending up to $10,000 between now and Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year. The second contract calls for bringing in a full-time specialist employed by the Extension Agency to work with the city on the hog problem. The $95,000 contract would run from October 2009 through September 2010, with the possibility of extending it one more year at $75,000, if needed and if funds are available. Funding would come from the Austin Water Utility through water rates.

The wild hogs are reproduction machines, according to Conrad. Females can produce a litter of a dozen or more by six months of age and the survivors, in turn, can produce litters of their own in another six months.

“What it means is that if you fail to control one female, you end up with 100 more animals on a property in one year,” Conrad said.

The city has had a program to control feral hogs on its Balcones Canyonlands Preserve (BCP) system for the past 10 years because of the hogs’ tendency to damage habitat, Conrad said. The city owns and manages more than 13,000 acres dedicated to the BCP as habitat for endangered birds and other endangered species.

For the most part, city staff was able to trap and kill enough of the wild hogs to keep their numbers under control in the preserve lands, Conrad said. But with the drought causing the animals to move to residential areas, staff decided to get outside expert help. In addition to going after hogs on city land, the contractor may seek permission from private owners of undeveloped lands to go on their property to track down hogs as well, Conrad said.

“We believe the contracts (with the Texas AgriLife Extension Service) will end up helping the preserve as well as the residential neighborhoods,” Conrad added.

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