LEESBURG, Ga.- Gilbert, Ariz., native Hal Shouse was told when he was a child that he could be anything he wanted to be. So as an adult growing tired of working in the restaurant/bar business, the 39-year-old decided to follow his passion and take a new turn in his life. That turn lead him 2,000 miles across the country to Southwest Georgia, where he settled in Leesburg last summer.
"I wanted more for myself, my wife and our baby daughter," Shouse said.
The avid hunter's plan was to turn his 20 years of hunting experience into a business. After extensive research, he discovered a growing need across the southern part of the country for feral hog control.
"The feral hog population has just exploded. They eat like hogs and breed like rats," Shouse said.
The problem is particularly concentrated in Southern states like Texas, Alabama, Florida and Georgia, where there is an established wild hog population. According to Jack Mayer, a feral-swine expert who is a scientist with the U.S. Department of Energy's Savannah River National Laboratory in Aiken, S.C., wild hog numbers have more than doubled in the past 20 years.
It is estimated there are between 2 million and 6 million feral hogs in the United States. In Georgia, 137 of the 159 counties in the state have wild hog populations, with a statewide estimate of 200,000-600,000.
Shouse has taken a high-tech approach to addressing the feral hog problem. Calling his business "Hog S.W.A.T.," Shouse uses special weapons and tactics that include the latest in thermal-imaging scopes. Able to detect 1/10 of a degree of temperature, these scopes are mounted on .223-caliber Bushmaster and .308-caliber Panther rifles, as well as a 12-gauge Benelli shotgun with 3-inch Dixie Tri-Ball shells.
"We employ state-of-the-art thermal technology to detect hogs at night when they are most likely to be feeding or causing property damage," he said.
This high-tech equipment dosen't come cheap. Scopes can cost $8,000-$13,000.
"The use of thermal imaging over other methods enables pinpointing these hogs at great ranges, in total darkness, fog or smoke. They simply can't hide," Shouse said.
Wild hogs can cause a lot of grief for farmers. The amount of crop and property damage can quickly add up to big losses in time and money.
Bill Cobb, a Southwest Georgia farmer, saw his first wild hog in 2002 on a pecan orchard he farms in Randolph County.
"I think hunters brought some up from Florida and they took hold," he said. "Now I've seen as many as 80 to 100 pigs at one time."
The damage the hogs do to crops can be extensive. An adult hog can eat 20 pounds of pecans in a night or devour acres of seed corn, peanuts and other crops.
"As soon as the nuts hit the ground, the pigs will be there to eat them," Cobb said.
The way hogs look for food is also troublesome.
"When pigs root around for food, they can really tear up the ground," Cobb said. "You need a smooth surface to harvest peanuts. After the pigs have worked over an area, it can look like a plowed field."
Cobb has tried trapping with some success. Within the past 2 1/2 years, he has trapped 364 hogs on his farm, but many of the animals learn quickly to avoid the traps. Trap-shy hogs will root around the trap, but will not enter.
"These hogs tend to be bigger and smarter due to their age and experience, making it very difficult to shoot them with off-the-self night-hunting gear, let alone spotlights and day scopes," Shouse points out.
Shouse offers his service to farmers and landowners free of charge. He only asks for permission to bring along one or two hunters with him. The cost to go on a hunt with Shouse is $400 a night, which includes the use of equipment and meat from the hogs taken during the hunt. An average Hog S.W.A.T. hunt will harvest five hogs a night, although there is no limit to the number that can be taken.
"The farmer gets effective, efficient hog control for free. Hunters get a thrilling hunt and plenty of high-quality meat," Shouse said.
Shouse also is able to donate extra meat to people in need.
Shouse carries a $2 million insurance policy, but is diligent about taking measures to ensure he never has to use it by sticking to safety procedures, including a safety training session before each hunt.
Hunters come from many walks of life with various hunting backgrounds and experiences.
"I've had hunters that have never hunted at all and hunters who have been to Africa and Alaska," Shouse said.
Richard Tyson, an insurance claims adjuster living in Lee County, hunted from the time he was a boy and enjoys the comradery, the good time spent outdoors and the fresh meat harvested. Although Tyson has hunted everything South Georgia has to offer, it has been only within the last year that he started night hunting with Hog S.W.A.T.
"Hunting with Hal allows me to hunt places I don't normally hunt," Tyson said.
Through thermal technology, Hog S.W.A.T. provides a unique service that can help suppress the growing numbers of feral swine in Southwest Georgia. This can be an aid to farmers, land owners and wildlife professionals in their effort to manage the problem.
"Thermal isn't the 'savior' of the farmer, but it is a very effective tool when used properly and safely," Shouse said. "And it's a great time for 400 bucks!
"I moved my family 2,000 miles to this part of Georgia just to do this work, and I'm loving every minute of it. It's a win, win, win, win."