On Monday, the Texas House overwhelmingly (128-13) voted to defy State Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller and his plan to legalize a controversial poison for wild hogs.
Next, the Senate will evaluate the poison and its benefits and dangers. If it votes with a two-thirds majority, a ban of the poison will take effect immediately until more research has been completed. A simple majority will cause the ban to go into effect in September.
The bills filed in the House and Senate would prevent the legal use of a warfarin-based poison in traps designed for wild hogs until more research is done on the poison's health and environmental effects.
According to Texas A&M University estimates, there are 2.6 million wild hogs in the state. They cause an estimated $52 million in damage, particularly to crops and roads. Private Texas ranchlands have provided hogs the perfect habitat, because natural predators like wolves and mountain lions have been largely wiped out.
On Feb. 21, Miller approved a poison called Kaput Feral Hog Bait for use throughout Texas to eradicate wild hogs. Kaput primarily uses a chemical called warfarin, which is a blood thinner that saves human lives by preventing blood clots. Used as a rat and pig poison, it kills by causing fatal internal bleeding.
The move to use Kaput has drawn support from the Texas Farm Bureau, which called it a “step in the right direction to controlling that population,” in testimony in the House. Miller went a bit further, announcing, “With the introduction of this first hog lure, the ‘hog apocalypse' may finally be on the horizon.”
Following the federal approval of Kaput by the EPA earlier this year, the Texas Department of Agriculture issued emergency rules authorizing the use of the poison, but placing harsher restrictions on its use. Only licensed pesticide applicators may purchase or use the poison "to address the risk of inadvertent human consumption of warfarin-exposed hogs and the risk of potential secondary exposure of non-target animals," the department said.
But critics have lined up to oppose the move. The Texas Veterinary Medical Association, the Nature Conservancy, Texas Hog Hunters Association, the Sierra Club, commercial meat distributors, and what appears to be the majority of state legislators have come out against the measure.
Last month, the agriculture department's order was temporarily halted by a district judge's restraining order that suspended the emergency rules. Wild Boar Meats of Hubbard, Texas, sells trapped and processed hog meat throughout the state and filed the lawsuit seeking the restraining order. The suit's waiting period ends next week, but Kaput is waiting until May 1 to release the poison commercially.
That leaves just enough time for the Legislature to decide whether the poison can be used. The bills in the House (HB 3451) and the Senate (SB 1454), proposed by Republican Rep. Lynn Stucky (R-Denton) and state Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin), would require a state agency or university to study and publish results on the environmental and economic consequences of the poison's use before it can hit the market. If the bill gets a two-thirds majority in both houses, the ban on Kaput takes place immediately.
If the bill secures a simple majority, it takes effect in September, which may cause a scramble of sales and distribution between May and the fall. If it secures a two-thirds majority in both houses, the ban takes place immediately.
In the House, the bill's passage is all but guaranteed. More than two-thirds of representatives are co-sponsors of the bill.
"It just doesn't make sense to deploy a poison that hasn't been fully studied and approved for environmental safety," State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-123) said.
Every San Antonio representative are co-sponsors except Roland Gutierrez (D-119) and Joe Straus (R-121), who couldn't be reached for comment.
In the Senate, nearly one-third of the body is co-sponsoring the bill, but many senators haven't come out for or against it yet. From San Antonio, State Sens. Carlos Uresti (D-19) and José Menéndez (D-26) are co-sponsors, and Judith Zaffirini (D-21) supports the bill. Senator Donna Campbell couldn't be reached for comment.
"While their population does need to be controlled, questions remain about whether poisoning them is the right approach, and many have expressed concern about the potential impact of warfarin or lethal pesticides on other wildlife and livestock," Zaffirini said.
A veterinarian by training, Stucky said he has “treated countless animals for warfarin poisoning,” especially dogs, adding that such poisoning leads to a “slow, excruciating death” from internal bleeding.
Australia banned the use of warfarin-based poisons on hogs in 2009.
“Secondary kills are a major concern," said Daryl Markgraf, a hog hunter who helped draft the bill. "It’s illegal to kill a buzzard, a federal offense, but when a buzzard eats the hog, it will die. Hogs can turn over the [bait] stations and other animals can eat them. We’ve seen raccoons get into the bait station by raising a door, and they rake it into the ground. Then other animals can get it.”
Taylor Collins of EPIC Provisions, which sells wild boar meat, also has concerns about the poison.
"Whether by direct consumption, runoff after rains, or the eating of infected hogs' carcasses, this toxic chemical will end up in the bellies of other wildlife, in our state water systems, and in our supermarkets," he said. "Nothing in nature exists in isolation."
Purveyors like Collins have valid reasons to be concerned for the health of their industry if the poison comes into use.
“Feral hog companies have seen around a 25% drop in business since the rule was announced, just because now they need to prove they don’t have contaminated meat,” Markgraf said.
The poison is laced with a blue dye that appears in the animal's meat about two days after ingestion. For advocates of the poison, that is enough to discourage human consumption. Still, if meat is harvested before the dye can manifest, there is a risk of accidental consumption for humans. Even the risk of it could have a chilling effect on the fledgling wild game meat industry.
Since the poison would be applied unevenly around a state that is 95% privately owned land, a "hog apocalypse" is unlikely. Instead, the permanent solution to the hog pest problem may lie in creating a permanent demand for their meat in the marketplace.
"Rather than viewing these hogs as a pest in need of extermination at any environmental or moral cost, it would be wiser to see them as a source of food and economic growth," Collins said. "We can create new supply chains that would control the hogs' populations and mitigate their impact, chipping away at the state's unfathomably large supply of feral hogs while ensuring thousands of pounds of meat [aren't] put to waste."
"A great additional source of wild protein would be wild hogs, if you could cut through the red tape," said Eric Cooper, CEO of the San Antonio Food Bank. "When you think of overpopulation and the damage they are doing, combined with the money spent on eradication, I would love to see some of that protein on the plate of those that are hungry."
The Food Bank already accepts venison donations to the tune of 50,000 pounds last year alone through a program called Hunters for the Hungry.
"Next to peanut butter, animal proteins are the number one item the food bank needs," Cooper said.
The flavor of wild boar meat is popularly viewed as excellent, which is why demand for wild hogs as food is growing.
"A free-range animal grazing on a wide variety of forageable food gets more muscle-enhancing movement, which generates a deeper, more flavorful meat than an animal confined and raised solely on grain; and there are no antibiotics or hormone supplements to worry about with wild animals," said Heidi Roth, who wrote about the topic for the food blog Serious Eats. "Taking advantage of the wild pigs as food seems like a no-brainer."
Just like sunny Texas is discovering solar power can fuel its grid, it's possible that wild hogs could help feed its population. A legal widespread poison against them may slow those efforts down.