When it comes to invasive wild pigs, Texas is No. 1.
There are at least 2 million feral hogs roaming the state – about half the animal's national population. Authorities say the hogs cause hundreds of millions of dollars a year in damage to property and agriculture. But, despite those numbers, hogs are usually thought to be confined to rural parts of Texas.
A quick glance at Carrie Moore’s front lawn will show you that's not the case.
Moore lives off Springdale Road just north of Highway 290. Earlier this month, she and her chihuahua BB were investigating what the hogs had done to her Saint Augustine grass.
“It’s all rutted up and it’s just a mess,” Moore said as BB sniffed the tilled soil.
Neighbors report the hogs started coming out last fall. Many say they never minded the animals when they stuck to the greenbelt around Walnut Creek, but the recent damage to landscaping and gardens has crossed a line.
“I’m gonna see if I can get a shot at them,” Moore says she told a neighbor recently. “He said, 'Well don’t shoot me!’”
These houses sit just outside city limits. Inside the city, shooting a gun is illegal. Even though the rules stop at the city line, Moore says, the hogs do not. They seem to be using the creek as a pathway to get around the East Side of town.
That raises the question: Just how many pigs live in Austin, right under our noses?
A request for pig-related 311 calls went nowhere; the city said it doesn’t keep those records.
But Austinites were happy to share their sightings on Twitter. The reports came from parts of town near green spaces, like the Stephenson Nature Preserve, Old Spicewood Springs Road and the Barton Creek Greenbelt, as well as more central areas like Tarrytown.
“Is that a thing? Are there just hogs in Tarrytown that I didn’t know about?” Shelby Janner says she wondered after seeing a massive pig a few years ago.
Taylor Young, an operations manager at Austin Discovery School near the Colorado River, says the East Side campus saw a lot of hog damage starting last fall.
“We would be coming to work in the morning and there would be a couple that would clearly be hit by cars on [FM] 969,” he says. “So they were definitely getting closer to population centers than we had ever seen them.”
News reports also document pig-related car accidents and homeowners clashing with hogs in West Austin. The accounts have been coming from all over, but there seemed to be a lot of new sightings in far East Austin – from the Colorado River all the way up north of 290.
Despite that, City Wildlife Officer Sarah Whitson says she gets only a few calls a year about hogs being a problem.
“Say you live in the middle of the city and you live near a preserve," she says, "you might have some activity from there. But them going through streets in the middle of the city is very uncommon.”
While Whitson says she hasn't heard of an increase in hog activity, residents of many East Side neighborhoods say it’s happening.
And they have a few theories why.
Sprawl: “We have a lot of development that’s recent,” says Ray Prewitt, who lives near Moore. “I think it’s really pushed them down this way. A lot of the wildlife has been offset a little bit.”
Experts agree that’s a possibility.
“If their habitat is completely taken away, and that’s where they got their food the last five or 10 years … they’re going to go wherever there is a food source drawing them in,” Whitson says.
Floods: Young says the hogs showed up last fall, “right around when the Llano River flooded and they opened up all the floodgates.”
He says he wonders if that flooding caused the animals to be cut off from “some sort of river crossing or feeding ground that they normally used this time of year.”
Again, there is some precedent for that. In the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension video “Urban Wild Pig Impacts and Concerns,” biologist Adam Henry says flooding can drive feral hogs out of creeks and river basins and into backyards.
Droughts can have the same effect, as wildlife leaves dry areas to seek forage on irrigated land.
Wildlife specialists say that beyond being a nuisance to property owners – who value their lawns and gardens – feral hogs don’t pose much of a threat in the city. Hog attacks on humans are almost unheard of, though they can run out in front of cars, posing a danger on roadways.
The best advice if you see a hog: Walk away and it will probably do the same.
If you do have pig problems in Austin, your options depend on where you live. Up until a few years ago, the city and county contracted with a state agency called Wildlife Services that would trap and kill animals, including hogs.
That contract ended after allegations the agency was killing too many animals unnecessarily.
Now if you’re in city limits, a wildlife officer like Whitson can teach you nonlethal ways to keep pigs away, things like “hazing” the animals (training them to be afraid) or installing gates. She says the city will also refer homeowners to hog trappers.
“We maintain that no-kill policy for wildlife as we do for pets,” Whitson says.
Of course, if you’re in the county you have more lethal options.
Moore says she’s contacted Wildlife Services, which still operates for hire.
Up the road from her house, Andy Sernovitz has already brought on a hog hunter to rid his tech company’s 88-acre campus of pigs.
He says 32 hogs were caught in one month, and they just keep coming.
“We’re 12 minutes from the [state] Capitol,” Sernovitz says, “and we’re overrun by feral hogs.”