Dec. 12, 2006 -- There is an omnivorous menace spreading across the American farmland and now reaching into suburbia. It is smart, fast and dangerous, and is multiplying at an almost unstoppable pace.
It is the feral pig, and its population has been exploding. It is now found in nearly 40 states.
Farmers and ranchers have been reporting more and more damage from wild pigs. In Texas alone, the crop damage last year was estimated at $50 million.
Part of the problem is that the pigs have few predators that are up to the challenge of killing them.
Barefoot Bob Richardson has been a hunter for most of his life. He also hunts quail and deer, but wild pigs present the most dangerous prey. He has been gored a number of times by their sharp tusks, lost hunting dogs to wild pigs and been on hand when others have been charged by the strong, quick animals.
After so many years hunting the beasts, Barefoot Bob has come to respect them.
"They're the smartest animal we hunt," he said. "They're smarter than a dog. They're really prolific, and a lot of people think of them as stupid because so many young ones are out there that haven't learned the ropes.
"You know, they learn to avoid traps," he added. "They learn not to go to deer feeders during deer season. You will get up, and you will see a big boar. He'll go to a deer feeder, and he'll make a complete circle about 200, 300 yards away, where he's out of sight.
"As soon as he gets downwind of the hunter," Richardson said, letting out a whistle, "gone."
But now, with the exploding population and a well-established appetite for their meat in Europe, catching and trapping wild pigs has become a business, too.
There are processors in Texas that provide the game meat to some of the finest restaurants in European cities. And there is a slowly growing market for feral pig meat in the United States, where it sells for about $7 a pound and is known more delicately as wild boar.
Jon Bonnell, chef and owner of Bonnell's restaurant in Fort Worth, Texas, has had wild boar chops on his menu since opening five years ago. From his chef's perspective, the meat is some of the healthiest he sees.
"It's like a lot of the other wild products," he said. "We serve venison and buffalo. It's a leaner meat. And because they're raised on a natural diet, they're a little smaller, got less fat. It's a little healthier, and the flavor is just rich as can be."
But even with a developing market for restaurants both here and abroad, there is little doubt that the wild pigs remains an agricultural disaster, as their growth rate far exceeds the current demand for their meat.
In Texas alone, the state legislature set up a program with Texas A&M University to try and find an abatement program. But even with a successful program, there is little chance of eliminating the wild pigs from Texas or any other state where they have taken root, said Billy Higginbotham, who is leading the program at Texas A&M.
"We are not going to eradicate them," he said. "What our hope is, that we can reduce their population to reduce damage to agricultural interest across the state."
But for Richardson, this has been his best year for catching feral pigs in West Texas. He expects that by the end of this year, he will have caught or captured nearly 2,000.