|Texas spiny softshell turtle photo by Gary M. Stolz, USFWS. This image is available for media use.|
|Texas spiny softshell turtle photo by Gary M. Stolz, USFWS. This image is available for media use.|
Though a new Texas law allows hunters to shoot feral hogs and coyotes from hot air balloons, it’s not easy to find a balloonist offering the activity.
“I have never had a phone call from anybody asking to do this,” said Pat Cannon of Lewisville, spokesman for the Balloon Federation of America. “I think that people have not stopped laughing yet.”
The law went into effect Sept. 1, but state permitters, insurers and balloonists say they haven’t heard of anyone planning to hunt hogs from hot air balloons. They point to factors like visibility and difficulty steering that make the activity hard.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has not granted any of the permits needed for hot air balloon hunting, said Steve Lightfoot, a department spokesman. Rob Schantz of Jacksonville, Florida, who heads one of the country’s few balloon insurance agencies, said no balloonists had asked if the activity could be covered under their policies. His agency will not offer coverage for aerial hunting.
Among other logistical challenges, the balloon’s burners make a “horrendous roaring noise,” Schantz said. “It would scare anything away, and if they had a chance to take a shot, you could shoot somebody’s dog or shoot a person.”
The new law, authored by state Rep. Mark Keough, R-The Woodlands, is just one of Texas legislators’ attempts to curb the feral hog population in the state. Called a menace, the estimated 2 million feral hogs in Texas are responsible for about $400 million in damage each year, and their population would grow rapidly if left unchecked. A “pork-chopper” bill – allowing hogs to be hunted from helicopters – has been on the books since 2011, and state officials haveconsidered poisoning the animals with a lethal pesticide.
Lightfoot said department rules that govern hunting from a helicopter are similar to those for gunning from a hot air balloon. Among them is a requirement that there be an agreement with a landowner permitting aerial hunting on his or her property. Lightfoot said Tuesday the department had received one phone call inquiring about the needed permits, but that none had been issued.
Keough said in a statement the new law “will open a whole new industry towards eliminating the growing population of feral hogs in the State of Texas.” After the measure passed both legislative chambers in May, state Rep. John Cyrier, R-Lockhart, wrote a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott saying it could lead to “future catastrophes” without increased oversight of commercial ballooning.
Judith McGeary, executive director of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, said feral hogs pose a very significant problem to farmers and rural communities, as they destroy land and can carry diseases.
“There hasn’t been a good way to control them,” she said. Hunting from a hot air balloon isn’t expected to be a magic bullet, she said, but it seems like a “reasonable additional tool to add.”
But balloonists and pilots point to numerous challenges that make hunting from a hot air balloon difficult, if not impossible.
First, hot air balloons only fly under certain conditions. Wind, clouds, thermals and time of day are taken into account by the balloonist, and aren’t always conducive to hunting. For example, because balloons float on the wind, they couldn’t circle a pack of feral hogs while the hunters tried to shoot them.
“Let’s just assume you have a herd of feral hogs running one way and … they turn left. The balloon can’t turn left,” said Schantz, the insurance underwriter. “The balloon just keeps going and the feral hogs are off on their merry way the other way.”
For similar reasons, balloons would likely be unable to stop to retrieve the carcasses of shot hogs, said Joe Reynolds, a private pilot in Austin. Because the animals can weigh hundreds of pounds, it would also be difficult to hoist them into the balloon’s basket, and they might exceed the balloon’s load limit, said Reynolds.
Ideally, Cannon said, hot air balloon hunting would take place over land that has a large feral hog population, is owned by one person, and is in a fairly rural area – as balloons must fly at higher altitudes over houses and populated zones. A GPS tracker could help balloonists navigate boundaries that demarcate one property from the next, and make notes of where shot feral hogs fall. The landowner or someone else on the ground could pick up the carcasses.
Still, spotting those property limits from the air can be difficult, Cannon said. If the balloon is accidentally flown over a neighbor’s property, and “somebody points a gun down and shoots and discharges a weapon over that guy’s land,” Cannon said, “he could be prosecuted for that.” Dogs, donkeys or other animals could be mistaken for feral hogs and coyotes from the vantage point of a balloon.
Reynolds, the private pilot, said he’s fielded calls about the activity. But it often becomes immediately apparent “that the reality of it is not going to work.”
“I can’t speak for every balloon pilot in the world,” he added, “but nobody that I’ve talked to is going to try to take any of this on.”
Disclosure: The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.
UVALDE, Tex. — On a ranch at the southwestern edge of the Texas Hill Country, a hunting guide spotted her cooling off in the shade: an African reticulated giraffe. Such is the curious state of modern Texas ranching, that a giraffe among the oak and the mesquite is an everyday sort of thing.
“That’s Buttercup,” said the guide, Buck Watson, 54.
In a place of rare creatures, Buttercup is among the rarest; she is off limits to hunters at the Ox Ranch. Not so the African bongo antelope, one of the world’s heaviest and most striking spiral-horned antelopes, which roams the same countryside as Buttercup. The price to kill a bongo at the Ox Ranch is $35,000.
Himalayan tahrs, wild goats with a bushy lion-style mane, are far cheaper. The trophy fee, or kill fee, to shoot one is $7,500. An Arabian oryx is $9,500; a sitatunga antelope, $12,000; and a black wildebeest, $15,000.
“We don’t hunt giraffes,” Mr. Watson said. “Buttercup will live out her days here, letting people take pictures of her. She can walk around and graze off the trees as if she was in Africa.”
The Ox Ranch near Uvalde, Tex., is not quite a zoo, and not quite an animal shooting range, but something in between.
The ranch’s hunting guides and managers walk a thin, controversial line between caring for thousands of rare, threatened and endangered animals and helping to execute them. Some see the ranch as a place for sport and conservation. Some see it as a place for slaughter and hypocrisy.
The Ox Ranch provides a glimpse into the future of the mythic Texas range — equal parts exotic game-hunting retreat, upscale outdoor adventure, and breeding and killing ground for exotic species.
Ranchers in the nation’s top cattle-raising state have been transforming pasture land into something out of an African safari, largely to lure trophy hunters who pay top-dollar kill fees to hunt exotics. Zebra mares forage here near African impala antelopes, and it is easy to forget that downtown San Antonio is only two hours to the east.
The ranch has about 30 bongo, the African antelopes with a trophy fee of $35,000. Last fall, a hunter shot one. “Taking one paid their feed bill for the entire year, for the rest of them,” said Jason Molitor, the chief executive of the Ox Ranch.
To many animal-protection groups, such management of rare and endangered species — breeding some, preventing some from being hunted, while allowing the killing of others — is not only repulsive, but puts hunting ranches in a legal and ethical gray area.
“Depending on what facility it is, there’s concern when animals are raised solely for profit purposes,” said Anna Frostic, a senior attorney with the Humane Society of the United States.
Hunting advocates disagree and say the breeding and hunting of exotic animals helps ensure species’ survival. Exotic-game ranches see themselves not as an enemy of wildlife conservation but as an ally, arguing that they contribute a percentage of their profits to conservation efforts.
“We love the animals, and that’s why we hunt them,” Mr. Molitor said. “Most hunters in general are more in line with conservation than the public believes that they are.”
Beyond the financial contributions, hunting ranches and their supporters say the blending of commerce and conservation helps save species from extinction.
Wildlife experts said there are more blackbuck antelope in Texas than there are in their native India because of the hunting ranches. In addition, Texas ranchers have in the past sent exotic animals, including scimitar-horned oryx, back to their home countries to build up wild populations there.
“Ranchers can sell these hunts and enjoy the income, while doing good for the species,” said John M. Tomecek, a wildlife specialist with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.
Animal-rights activists are outraged by these ranches. They call what goes on there “canned hunting” or “captive hunting.’’
“Hunting has absolutely nothing to do with conservation,” said Ashley Byrne, the associate director of campaigns for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “What they’re doing is trying to put a better spin on a business that they know the average person finds despicable.”
A 2007 report from Texas A&M University called the exotic wildlife industry in America a billion-dollar industry.
At the Ox Ranch, it shows. The ranch has luxury log cabins, a runway for private planes and a 6,000-square-foot lodge with stone fireplaces and vaulted ceilings. More animals roam its 18,000 acres than roam the Houston Zoo, on a tract of land bigger than the island of Manhattan. The ranch is named for its owner, Brent C. Oxley, 34, the founder of HostGator.com, a web hosting provider that was sold in 2012 for more than $200 million.
“The owner hopes in a few years that we can break even,” Mr. Molitor said.
Because the industry is largely unregulated, there is no official census of exotic animals in Texas. But ranchers and wildlife experts said that Texas has more exotics than any other state. A survey by the state Parks and Wildlife Department in 1994 put the exotic population at more than 195,000 animals from 87 species, but the industry has grown explosively since then; one estimate by John T. Baccus, a retired Texas State University biologist, puts the current total at roughly 1.3 million.
The Ox Ranch needs no local, state or federal permit for most of their exotic animals.
State hunting regulations do not apply to exotics, which can be hunted year-round. The Fish and Wildlife Service allows ranches to hunt and kill certain animals that are federally designated as threatened or endangered species, if the ranches take certain steps, including donating 10 percent of their hunting proceeds to conservation programs. The ranches are issued permits to conduct activities that would otherwise be prohibited under the Endangered Species Act if those activities enhance the survival of the species in the wild. Those federal permits make it legal to hunt Eld’s deer and other threatened or endangered species at the Ox Ranch.
Mr. Molitor said more government oversight was unnecessary and would drive ranchers out of the business. “I ask people, who do you think is going to manage it better, private organizations or the government?” Mr. Molitor said.
Lawyers for conservation and animal-protection groups say that allowing endangered animals to be hunted undermines the Endangered Species Act, and that the ranches’ financial contributions fail to benefit wildlife conservation.
“We ended up with this sort of pay-to-play idea,” said Tanya Sanerib, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “It is absolutely absurd that you can go to a canned-hunt facility and kill an endangered or threatened species.”
The creatures are not the only things at the ranch that are exotic. The tanks are, too.
The ranch offers its guests the opportunity to drive and shoot World War II-era tanks. People fire at bullet-ridden cars from atop an American M4 Sherman tank at a shooting range built to resemble a Nazi-occupied French town.
“We knew the gun people would come out,” said Todd DeGidio, the chief executive of DriveTanks.com, which runs the tank operation. “What surprised us was the demographic of people who’ve never shot guns before.”
Late one evening, two hunters, Joan Schaan and her 15-year-old son, Daniel, rushed to get ready for a nighttime hunt, adjusting the SWAT-style night-vision goggles on their heads.
Ms. Schaan is the executive director of a private foundation in Houston. Daniel is a sophomore at St. John’s School, a prestigious private school. They were there not for the exotics, but basically for the pests: feral hogs, which cause hundreds of millions of dollars in damage annually in Texas.
“We are here because we both like to hunt, and we like hunting hogs,” Ms. Schaan said. “And we love the meat and the sausage from the hogs we harvest.”
Pursuing the hogs, Ms. Schaan and her son go off-roading through the brush in near-total darkness, with a hunting guide behind the wheel. Aided by their night-vision goggles, they passed by the giraffes before rattling up and down the hilly terrain.
Daniel fired at hogs from the passenger seat with a SIG Sauer 516 rifle, his spent shell casings flying into the back seat. Their guide, Larry Hromadka, told Daniel when he could and could not take a shot.
No one is allowed to hunt at the ranch without a guide. The guides make sure no one shoots an exotic animal accidentally with a stray bullet, and that no one takes aim at an off-limits creature.
One of the hogs Daniel shot twitched and appeared to still be alive, until Mr. Hromadka approached with his light and his gun.
Hundreds of animals shot at the ranch have ended up in the cluttered workrooms and showrooms at Graves Taxidermy in Uvalde.
Part of the allure of exotic game-hunting is the so-called trophy at the end — the mounted and lifelike head of the animal that the hunter put down. The Ox Ranch is Graves Taxidermy’s biggest customer.
“My main business, of course, is white-tailed deer, but the exotics have kind of taken over,” said Browder Graves, the owner.
He said the animal mounts he makes for people were not so much a trophy on a wall as a symbol of the hunter’s memories of the entire experience. He has a mount of a Himalayan tahr he shot in New Zealand that he said he cannot look at without thinking of the time he spent with his son hunting up in the mountains.
“It’s God’s creature,” he said. “I’m trying to make it look as good as it can.”
Small herds passed by the Jeep being driven by Mr. Watson, the hunting guide. There were white elk and eland, impala and Arabian oryx.
Then the tour came to an unexpected stop. An Asiatic water buffalo blocked the road, unimpressed by the Jeep. The animal was caked with dried mud, an aging male that lived away from the herd.
“The Africans call them dugaboys,” Mr. Watson said. “They’re old lone bulls. They’re so big that they don’t care.”
The buffalo took his time moving. For a moment, at least, he had all the power.
As state lawmakers gut major bills in the last days of the 85th legislative session, it’s become clear where many of their priorities lie. Child welfare. Religious freedom. Women’s health.
Oh, and hunting feral hogs from hot air balloons.
That last one, oddly enough, is one of the few issues that have managed to float through both chambers unscathed. Thanks to a Wednesday vote by the Texas Senate, a bill allowing landowners to shoot wild hogs and coyotes from the safety of a hot air balloon basket has now landed on Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk.
The state’s estimated 2 million feral hogs have long-tormented Texas farmers, leaving destroyed crops and pastures in their wake. This bill is only the latest strategy in a growing list of legal ways to kill these invasive hogs under Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller’s watch. Balloon-hunting, actually, is a fix to a bill then-Representative Miller passed in 2011, which allowed property owners to shoot hogs from helicopters (he called it the “pork chopper” bill). But according to aerial hog hunters, their prey have become familiar with the buzzing helicopter motor and often scatter when they hear a chopper approaching. Plus, they complain, it’s near impossible to keep a steady aim on a bumpy helicopter ride.
Enter, the hot air balloon.
“We’ve got a problem here, and we are willing to fix it ourself. We have that Western, swashbuckling, cowboying type of way to deal with things,” Representative Mark Keough, a Woodlands Republican, told the Texas Observer in April. “It’s part of the culture, it’s different than any other state.”
Keough has never tried the kind of “swashbuckling” hunting his bill allows. That’s probably because it’s illegal — but also because absolutely no one hunts hogs from hot air balloons. It seems to be an idea Keough basically invented himself. The bill provides no information on how a person can rent a hot air balloon for a hunting excursion (unless you’re throwing down some $22,000 on a personal huntin’ balloon), or if they need to take a certain certification class before taking flight.
Either way, the majority of Texas legislators apparently think it’s a good idea.
Commissioner Miller’s office didn’t return calls for comment Thursday and his wildly active social media accounts lack any acknowledgement of Keough’s bill. This silence, coming from a man who once called for a Texas-sized “hog apocalypse,” is a bit surprising.
It could be Miller’s still sulking after his own hog eradication scheme fell flat in April. Miller was met with quick opposition after legalizing the use of posion-laced hog kibble in February. An unusual coalition of hog hunters, meat processing plant owners, and environmentalists filed a joint lawsuit against the state, claiming too little was known about the toxic chemical’s affects of humans and the environment to approve. The law has been put on hold, and the one toxic hog kibble provider decided to stop selling to Texas after being slammed with a barrage of lawsuits.
If signed by Gov Abbott, Keough’s bill will go into effect in September.
Researchers and policymakers for years have searched fruitlessly for effective ways to significantly drop feral hog population levels in Texas, with proposals ranging from eating our way out of the problem to widespread poisoning.
Roughly 2 million wild hogs are estimated to live in Texas, and they cause more than $50 million in damage each year. The invasive animals’ high breeding rate and lack of predators have fueled their proliferation in South, Central and East Texas, leading to big business for hunters and trappers.
In 2011, Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, then a state rep, passed what became known as the “pork chopper” bill, legalizing the hunting of feral hogs from a helicopter. On its face, the bill sounded more like a joke than an actual solution.
Turns out, it’s really hard to shoot anything from a helicopter. In addition to being ineffective, the method is also very dangerous (and not just for the hogs.) The only results produced by the bill were some crazy YouTube videos and an industry in which people pay upwards of $3,000 per hunt to pick off pigs from a chopper.
Enter state Representative Mark Keough, a Republican and pastor from The Woodlands. He told the Observer that he “loved” Miller’s pork chopper bill and found himself asking: “What are more ways we can take more feral hogs?”
After chatting with hunters and conducting his own informal research, Keough believes he’s found an alternative solution: hot air balloons.
His House Bill 3535 would authorize Texans to hunt feral hogs and coyotes from a hot air balloon with a permit.
If the idea seems crazy, that’s because it is. No one hunts from a hot air balloon. Go ahead, Google it. “I haven’t found people anywhere doing this,” Keough admits.
But he thinks it would be pretty damn sweet to try. (It’s currently illegal, or he would’ve tried already, he said.)
The fast-moving helicopter approach, Keough says, has a lot of “safety issues,” leads to many misses and often scares off the hogs. “They’re smart,” he said.
Hot air balloons, on the other hand, are more stable, slower and offer a better rifle-shooting platform, Keough said.
Last July, 16 people were killed in the deadliest hot air balloon crash in U.S. history near Lockhart when the pilot lost control and crashed into power lines. The incident led to calls for stricter regulation of the balloon industry.
Still, Keough says, “It’s far safer than if you were hunting out of a helicopter.”
But more effective? Probably not.
Even Keough admits there’s a good chance hunters could spend all day in a balloon and not shoot anything. And its clumsy, slow-moving nature will keep hunters from effectively chasing the animals.
The animals, which can grow to weigh 100-400 pounds, have a gestation period that’s shorter than four months and litter sizes of up to 12. They are considered a non-game animal, meaning there are no seasons or bag limits, but a state hunting license is required.
Billy Higginbotham, a professor and wildlife and fisheries specialist with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, said the balloon strategy faces the same problem as helicopters in the eastern third of the state: trees.
“Aerial gunning by any vehicle [in East Texas] is not widely used because of the extensive tree cover,” Higginbotham said.
Keough said the “pork choppper” bill “was more about creating an industry” and that no single strategy will significantly reduce hog populations.
“I think there is a possibility [with hot air balloons] for an industry, but the motivating factor is this is another way to get rid of the problem,” he said
Keough also sponsored legislation that would require more research on the effects of widespread lethal pesticides, including warfarin, before they can be used on hogs. The measure passed the House Monday.
A Texas Parks and Wildlife Department spokesperson declined to comment on pending legislation, citing agency policy. HB 3535 would require the agency to license individuals who want to hunt from the balloons.
Keough, who said he’s “interested in anything that will help us get rid of these things,” believes his bill represents the spirit of Texas.
“We’ve got a problem here, and we are willing to fix it ourself,” he said. “We have that Western, swashbuckling, cowboying type of way to deal with things. It’s part of the culture, it’s different than any other state.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story reported no license is required to hunt feral hogs in Texas. A state-issued license is required, although there are no seasons or bag limits.
Securing a Texan’s right to shoot wild pigs from a helicopter may have been Sid Miller’s best-known accomplishment before this week.
The state’s agricultural commissioner hangs a boar’s head and toy chopperoutside his office to remind people of the law he got passed, the Austin American-Statesman reports.
But Miller has never stopped searching for better ways to kill some 2 million feral hogs in Texas that the commissioner accuses of eating newborn lambs, uprooting crops and “entire city parks,” trampling across highways and causing more than $50 million in damage a year.
The search is over, Miller announced Tuesday: “The ‘Hog Apocalypse’ may finally be on the horizon.”
Miller said he would return his entire research budget to the state. He doesn’t need it anymore, he says, after finding “a new weapon in the long-standing war on the destructive feral hog population.”
It’s called warfarin: the pesticide with war in its name. Pigs eat it. It kills them slowly, often painfully, and turns their innards blue. It’s already wiped out swine herds in Australia, which later banned the product as inhumane.
Hunters and wildlife experts, not so much.
More than 3,000 have signed the Texas Hog Hunters Association’s petition against Miller’s chemical war.
“If this hog is poisoned, do I want to feed it to my family?” the group’s vice president, Eydin Hansen, asked the Dallas CBS affiliate. “I can tell you, I don’t.”
Stephanie Bell, an animal-cruelty director for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said in a statement that feral hogs “should not be sentenced to death simply for trying to forage and feed their own families.” She noted correctly that feral boars were brought to the United States to be hunted for sport before they proliferated across Texas and other states.
Tyler Campbell, a former researcher with the U.S. Agriculture Department, led the agency’s feral-hog studies in Kingsville, Tex., for several years, when warfarin was first tested on pigs in the United States.
“It was fast-tracked,” he said.
The test results weren’t pretty, he said. Marketed as Kaput Feral Hog Bait, the product is comparable to rat poison — with similar effects.
“They bleed,” Campbell said. Internally and externally, usually for a week or more before they die.
Just as concerning, he said, were difficulties in preventing other species from eating the poison — which is known to paralyze chickens, make rats vomit and kill all manner of animals.
The EPA regulations — which Texas plans to strengthen by licensing warfarin’s use — requires hogs to be fed the poison out of bins with 10-pound lids.
The lid tactic won’t work, Campbell said. Before retiring from government research a few years ago, he saw a study in which raccoons lifted much heavier lids in search of food.
“The wildlife community at large has reasons to have concerns,” he said.
“We do have very serious concerns about non-target species,” state wildlife veterinarian Jim LaCour told the Times-Picayune.
Even if only hogs can get to the bait, LaCour said, “they’re going to drop crumbs on the outside.” Those crumbs might then be eaten by rodents, which might be eaten by birds, and thus warfarin could spread throughout the ecosystem.
People should be concerned too, LaCour said: Millions take low doses of warfarin, like Coumadin, to prevent blood clots. Ingesting more from poisoned game could be “very problematic,” he said.
Miller isn’t worried.
The commissioner’s office didn’t reply to requests for comment. But in a statement to the CBS station DFW, he said years of testing prove that other wildlife, or pets, “would have to ingest extremely large quantities over the course of several days” to get sick.
As for the hunters’ objections, Miller said a blue dye will make poisoned hogs obvious long before they reach the oven.
“If you want them gone, this will get them gone,” the commissioner told the Statesman.
As precedent, he pointed to Australia, where he said warfarin “was used for many years” on feral hogs.
It was — in experiments that concerned government officials so much they later banned its use on grounds of “extreme suffering.”
The poison was effective, granted. It proved as apocalyptic as Miller promises, taking just a few months to wipe out an estimated 99 percent of wild pigs in Sunny Corner State Forest during an experiment in 1987.
Other studies described poisoned hogs’ last days in explicit detail: Some were lucky; massive internal bleeding killed them quickly after they ate warfarin. Most suffered for a week or more — one pig for a full month before it died.
“Animals moved only if approached closely and spent most time lying in shelter,” researchers wrote in Australian Wildlife Research in 1990.
Some leaked blood from their eyes or anuses. Many bled internally — sometimes into their joints, causing severe pain. An autopsy revealed one pig’s liver had fused to its stomach.
Being shot from a helicopter, the Australian government concluded, was objectively less cruel.
BEAUMONT, Texas (AP) —
A magistrate also ordered the 19-year-old Beaumont man to pay nearly $26,000 in restitution, barred Frederick from owning or possession firearms or ammunition and prohibited him from hunting or fishing in the U.S.
Frederick, who in May pleaded guilty to violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, must also do 200 hours of community service.
A Texas game warden on Jan. 11 received calls about two whooping cranes shot. Officials say Frederick was hunting nearby.
The birds died about 115 miles west of Louisiana’s White Lake Wetlands Conservation Area, where dozens of whooping cranes have been released in efforts to create a self-sustaining flock.
HUNTSVILLE, Texas – A Texas man was executed Wednesday evening for fatally shooting a game warden nine years ago during a shootout after a 90-minute chase that began when he was suspected of poaching.
He was pronounced dead at 6:30 p.m., 16 minutes after Texas prison officials began a lethal dose of pentobarbital. As the pentobarbital began taking effect, he snored about five times and coughed slightly once.
The lethal injection was the second in as many weeks in Texas, which carries out capital punishment more than any other state. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review his case earlier this month, and no new appeals were filed in the courts to try to block the punishment.
The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles on Monday declined a clemency petition from Freeman.
Freeman was suspected of illegally hunting at night in Southeast Texas’ Wharton County when a game warden spotted him. Freeman sped away, leading authorities on a chase that reached 130 mph. It ended near a cemetery near his home in Lissie with Freeman stepping out of his pickup truck and shooting at officers.
When the March 17, 2007, shootout was over, Freeman had been shot four times and Justin Hurst, a Texas Parks and Wildlife game warden who had joined in the pursuit, was fatally wounded. It was Hurst’s 34th birthday. About 100 law enforcement officers, many of them Texas game wardens, stood outside the Huntsville prison, during the execution.
Also outside were several motorcyclists who support law enforcement, the loud revving of their bikes clearly audible as the punishment was being carried out.
The brother of the Texas slain game warden thanked the law enforcement officers for coming to Huntsville.
“Nine years ago — nine long years,” Greg Hurst said after the execution, his voice cracking with emotion as he spoke of his brother’s death.
Texas Game Warden Col. Craig Hunter, head of law enforcement for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and a witness to Freeman’s execution, said the punishment marked “a moment that many of us have been waiting for since we first heard of Justin’s death.”
Hurst was an alligator and waterfowl specialist before moving to law enforcement. A state wildlife management area where he once worked in Brazoria County and about 60 miles south of Houston now carries his name.
Freeman’s trial lawyer, Stanley Schneider, said heavy alcohol use and severe depression led the unemployed welder to try to commit “suicide by cop” in his confrontation with officers.
“It was totally senseless,” Schneider said of the fatal shooting. “It really is very sad that it happened, that two families are suffering like this.”
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has at least eight other inmates set to die through July. Last year, 13 convicted killers were put to death in Texas, accounting for nearly half of all the 28 executions carried out nationwide.
Standing in a West Texas sporting goods store parking lot on a recent Sunday morning, Margaret Lloyd felt like she’d wandered onto the set of a gory movie. The lot was packed with trucks full of dead coyotes, foxes and the occasional bobcat; one pickup had a cage welded to its bed, and it was crammed with carcasses. “It was one wave of fur, tails on top of ears and ears on top of tails,” she said. “It was just horrifying.”
Around back, participants in the West Texas Big Bobcat Contest were weighing their kill in a competition to see who had shot the biggest bobcat and the most coyotes, gray foxes and bobcats in a 23-hour period. Some $76,000 in prize money was at stake — more than $31,000 went to the team that bagged a 32 pound bobcat. Other jackpot winners were a four-man team that killed 63 foxes, a team that killed 8 bobcats, and another that killed 32 coyotes.
Lloyd, a retired lawyer who lives in Galveston, grew up in the South among hunters and says she’s not opposed to killing animals for food or to protect a herd.
“This is not hunting,” she said. “This is a blood sport, plain and simple.”
Contests like these — often called coyote calling contests, varmint hunts or predator hunts — have become popular events, especially in the Midwest and West. The website CoyoteContest.com lists 21 states with upcoming or recent killing contests, including Arizona, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, South Dakota and Utah.
The Big Bobcat competition in San Angelo, Texas started in 2008 with just 21 teams, but drew 380 teams to the contest last month. “They’re growing exponentially,” said Geoff Nemnich, a champion coyote hunter who is cashing in on the phenomenon. His website, Coyote Craze, exhorts visitors to “Feed Your Addiction” and offers videos of coyotes being dispatched by high-powered weapons, along with t-shirts that read “Coyotes Fear Me,” and depict dead coyotes hanging by their feet. “Almost every weekend you can find [a contest] somewhere within driving distance,” he said.
But as these contests proliferate, efforts to stop them are, too. In December, California Fish and Game Commission outlawed contests that award prizes for killing wildlife (the ban takes effect in April). Legislation to bar such contests passed the New Mexico state senate but died in the house. In Nevada, a petition to prohibit predator-killing contests is pending before the state Board of Wildlife Commissioners. And protesters blasting the events as indiscriminate slaughter have been demonstrating outside of contests and related events, like the Predator Masters convention in Arizona in January.
Wildlife defenders cite research that suggests killing adult coyotes may actually increase the population, since it allows more pups to survive. Predators like coyotes also fill an important role in the ecosystem by helping keep the population of rodents in check.
Jeremy Harrison, a fifth-generation rancher, organized the Big Bobcat contest in Texas. He said coyote contests do a public service by reducing the number of livestock predators and protecting the public from rabies. “This is not bashing baby seals in the head,” he said.
To those who are offended, he has simple advice: Butt out. “It’s none of their business. It has nothing to do with them,” he said. “It’s one of the best things about this beautiful state of Texas. We have 100 percent support from Texas and from the local people. If they don’t like it, they can just stay away from it.”
Opponents of these events call people like Harrison “thrill killers.” And there is a jarring sort of gleefulness that surrounds the slaughter — one Arizona group holds a Santa Slay hunt in December each year. Nemnich posts excerpts from his videos, which are sold at Cabela’s and similar stores, on YouTube. Set to stirring martial music, one sizzle reel shows coyote after coyote being called and then gunned down.
Nemnich, who said his videos portray hunting “in the best light possible”, encourages others not to post “distasteful” images because it will provoke animal rights groups or turn people who are neutral against hunting. “You don’t go and post a video of a coyote with his guts blown out on Facebook,” he said. “It just fuels the fire.”
Nemnich, who boasts on his website that two of his sons bagged their first coyotes at the age of five, said he gets a steady stream of hate mail. One message said his kids should be “gut shot” like the coyotes in the video. (“And I’m the barbarian?” he said.) He thinks the critics of coyote killing contests have a bigger agenda — to ban hunting altogether. “We’re killing animals for money and prizes. That’s the easiest way for them to get their foot in the door,” he said.
Both Nemnich and Harrison pointed out that the federal government kills thousands of coyotes each year. They said the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services division uses much less “sportsmanlike” means, such as poisons and leg-hold traps.
Contests are completely legal, Nemnich said. “Some may consider it ethically wrong, but hunting has been around forever, it’s who we are out in this part of the country.”
Lloyd stopped to take pictures of the bobcat contest while driving from New Mexico back to Texas.
She said the spectacle was sickening, not a source of pride. With a breaking voice she said, “It was a sight and a situation that I’ll never shake for the rest of my life. I will never forget what I saw. A parking lot of absolute death at the hands of a civilized society.” She paused, and then corrected herself: “A supposedly civilized society.”
Myron Levin and Stuart Silverstein contributed to this story.
Correction: An earlier version of the story incorrectly stated that the Santa Slay event is in New Mexico. It takes place in Arizona.
The March 22 spill of 168,000 gallons of highly toxic bunker fuel into Galveston Bay can be expected to take a huge toll on migrating, nesting, and still-wintering birds. If you want to donate money to help, Houston Audubon seems to be the go-to organization right now. But whether or not you can make a financial contribution, if you spend time on the Texas coast this spring, you can make a vitally important difference in what happens next, by submitting the sightings of every oiled bird you see into eBird. Enter the species, numbers, time, and place as always, and for each bird click “Add Details,” then click “Oiled Birds.” Provide photos whenever possible.
Even though eBird can be the perfect repository for this wealth of data, how can entering bird sightings actually help this horrible situation?
After the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, volunteers and professionals descended upon Alaska in huge numbers. Some volunteers may have gotten in the way here and there, but with all those eyes and cameras bearing witness to the devastation, there was no way that Exxon could hide the environmental damage and the toll on wildlife. The final tally for oiled birds was between 100,000 and 250,000 oiled seabirds and at least 247 Bald Eagles. Thanks to the huge public outcry, the issue of single-hulled tankers was kept alive, and a great deal of pressure was put on Congress to enact legislation to strengthen protections for our vital waterways.
After the BP spill in 2010, I was disillusioned to see how dramatically things had changed. Only a handful of volunteers and very few professionals went to the Gulf. Marge Gibson, past president of the International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council and the woman who led the team recovering oiled Bald Eagles after the Exxon Valdez spill, was turned away from helping—literally prohibited from providing her valuable expertise—as were countless other specialists experienced in retrieving oiled pelicans and other birds along the Florida and California coasts. BP, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, conservation organizations, and the media gave out phone numbers for people to call if they wanted to help, and those of us who called were told we’d be notified if our services were necessary, but I know of no one who was ever called back. Qualified people with years of expertise in helping animals after oil spills waited for phone calls or email that never came. Marge Gibson waited for months with her bags packed.
What changed between the Exxon and BP spills was that the companies learned from what they considered Exxon’s P.R. mistakes. They learned that preventing access to the area and trying to minimize photographic evidence was the way to go. If the public doesn’t see it, it does not exist. Exxon has been judged severely for the Valdez accident, but in fact, after the spill they did their honest best, enlisting top scientists worldwide that were not just suits—they wore survival gear because they were physically on site—in ships and on the ground. I was there. I worked with them.
That spill was an open book not only for the public, but for the scientists that worked on it. B.P. decided that was not good because scientists document their work and put the data and their findings in the literature where it is available forever. The scientists who were allowed to produce studies in the aftermath of the BP spill had to sign away their rights to publish any of them for at least 5 years.
Yes, Exxon made mistakes. But it wasn’t Exxon who declared that oil companies could use single hulls again. Exxon allowed every aspect of the spill and the cleanup to be an open book. We could have learned how to reduce the potential for future spills, but all that seems to have been learned is how to do more effective cover-ups to minimize liability as much as humanly possible.
From the standpoint of wildlife conservation, the specific critical change between the 1989 Exxon spill and the 2010 BP spill is in the protocol for counting oiled animals—the only means of assessing damage to wildlife. After the Exxon spill, EVERY oiled animal that was seen was counted. Even though a quarter million oiled birds were documented, this number is considered by most authorities to be a gross underestimate, considering the huge area involved and how many birds, tiny and large, washed away undetected in the vast ocean.
With the BP spill, the new policy was to count only those oiled birds that were physically collected—picked up dead or alive. Minimizing the toll further, only a handful of people were authorized to retrieve these animals. Unauthorized people who found an oiled animal of any species were supposed to call a number and give directions to the animal, but were not allowed to not touch it or remove it under threat of heavy fines and jail.
Even authorized people were prohibited from capturing any bird still capable of flight. And “flight” was defined to include even the most pathetic fluttering. This Black-crowned Night-Heron that I photographed at the edge of Cat Island in Barataria Bay after the BP spill is not included in the official count of oiled birds.
Our boat spooked it and it fluttered a few feet into the water and then struggled to shore. Our boat captain told us that because none of us were authorized to collect oiled animals, he would lose his license if we did anything to try to save it. He also said that he was prohibited from calling in people who were authorized to retrieve oiled birds because it was still “flying.” I wish I were making this up.
The timing, during nesting season, made the situation even worse. In the weeks following the explosion, birders and other experts clearly observed that 50 to 80 percent of the 10,000 breeding birds on Raccoon Island were oiled. Yet not one of those birds is included in the official count of oiled wildlife. Thanks to another bizarre rule change, people who’d been permitted to take photos and videos of nesting birds on the island before the spill were shooed away, and even those people authorized to collect wildlife were prohibited from approaching the island, ostensibly to ensure nesting success of unoiled birds. Just the oiled adult birds on Raccoon Island would have doubled the final count of oiled birds, yet not one of them, nor any of their oiled eggs and chicks, nor a single oiled bird on other nesting colonies, is included in the official total.
I rejoined ABA in the aftermath of the BP spill because ABA sponsored and provided a forum for Drew Wheelan, the only birder consistently and steadily out in the field throughout the aftermath. Drew tirelessly and against a great many forces documented everything he saw about the disaster. I spent a few weeks down there in July and August, and saw for myself that everything Drew had written about was true. As far as I’m concerned, ABA proved itself a true conservation organization by using our strength—birding expertise—to document the effects of the spill on birds.
Some people speculate that rehabilitating oiled birds is not worth the cost and effort, when that money and energy could be going to support projects with the potential to help far greater numbers of birds. Even though I strongly believe that rehabilitating oiled birds is worth it, I agree that the subject is debatable. But the timing of the debate always seems to come right on the heels of these disasters, and following the BP spill, that debate played right into BP’s hands. Even some normally conscientious conservationists criticized the effort of retrieving these birds, presumably not realizing why retrieving these birds was so very important.
Regardless of the value of wildlife rehab, under current rules, the only oiled wildlife included in official numbers are ones that have been retrieved, dead or alive. This matters. It’s these official numbers that are used to assess damages against responsible parties. Thanks to the changes in protocol, barely 7,000 birds are in the official total of oiled wildlife after the BP spill. Just 7,000, compared to the quarter million in the official total after the Exxon Valdez spill. The National Wildlife Federation has a webpage directly comparing the two spills, but they present only the official numbers with no mention whatsoever that the method of counting changed so dramatically between the two events.
This is why it’s crucial that we birders document EVERY oiled bird. eBird is the way to do this. It will take a lot of work for scientists to identify and take out double counted birds and tease out the meaning and validity of the numbers, but only with a robust body of data can we establish with any accuracy at all the magnitude of damage from this spill.
For updates on the Galveston Bay oil spill and what you can do to help, please see Houston Audubon’s website.
To sign a petition to encourage access for rehabbers and accurate reporting of oiled birds, go here.