By Michael Hirtzer
(Reuters) - In Texas, the pigs do not fly but the hunters do.
Tourists looking for ever more thrilling holidays are taking to the skies above Texas to shoot wild hogs as part of the state's effort to limit the spread of an invasive species that annually causes millions of dollars in damage to farmland and livestock nationally.
For up to $50,000, people can hunt the feral hogs from a helicopter and even use a machine gun to mow them down.
"There's only so many places in the world you can shoot machine guns out of a helicopter and no one shoots back," said Chris Britt, co-owner of HeliBacon, one of the companies offering the aerial hog hunts.
HeliBacon says its customers alone gunned down about 10,000 feral hogs in the last 18 months, but that barely makes a dent in the Texas' population of more than 2 million, a total higher than any other state.
There were 2,752 helicopter hog hunts in Texas last year, up 81 percent from 2011, according to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department data. About 34,400 hogs were killed in those hunts, up 53 percent.
The total U.S. population of the hogs is estimated at more than 6 million, and state and federal government officials are increasing efforts to rid themselves of the pesky animals.
There are nearly 150 companies and individuals permitted to hunt invasive feral hogs from helicopters as part of the Texas' so-called pork chopper bill passed in 2011. State legislators last month sent a bill to Governor Greg Abbott that would allow hog hunting from hot air balloons.
At HeliBacon, based south of Dallas, packages for two start at about $3,600 and corporate group packages cost as much as $50,000, including airfare, lodging, ammunition, trophy photos and upgrades from semi- to fully automatic firearms.
"They love it," Britt said of his customers that include father-and-son trips and groups from the oil industry. "They don't take the meat, it becomes vulture food."
Animals rights activists are not fans.
"The Humane Society of the United States opposes the use of aerial gunning – whether from a helicopter or a hot air balloon – as a means of resolving conflicts with wildlife populations because it is unnecessarily cruel, dangerous and costly compared to other wild pig control methods," said Samantha Hagio, a director at the agency.
However, aerial hunting is one of the most effective ways to eradicate hogs in open areas such as Texas fields of corn and rice that are destroyed, said Jack Mayer, manager of environmental sciences at Georgia's Savannah River Laboratory and author of "Wild Pigs in the United States."
Even so, hunting and trapping are not keeping up with the rate of breeding and the feral herd continues to grow.
"You are not even stemming the tide," Mayer said by phone.
Wild boars were brought to Texas and released for hunting in the 1930s. They bred with free-ranging domestic animals and escapees that had adapted to the wild, according to the Smithsonian. Since hogs, wild or otherwise, are not native to the United States, they have no predators and proliferated across Texas and other states.
About $25.55 million was appropriated this year to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to tackle feral hogs on the national level and the agency is testing unmanned drones to track the hogs that thrive in swamps and forests, said Dale Nolte, the USDA's feral swine program manager.
Helicopter hunting already is allowed in Louisiana and Oklahoma legislators are considering a bill that would permit aerial hunts there.
Hot air balloons could allow hunters to approach hogs more quietly than a helicopter or give shooters a steadier shot, Mayer said.
In South Carolina, where aerial hog hunting is not permitted, farmer Rusty Kinard pays a local hunter $25 for each hog killed on his land. Still, there are hundreds near his fields and the hogs ate through nearly 30 acres (12 hectares) of peanuts last month.
"We will kill them suckers, every one we can," he said.
(Reporting by Michael Hirtzer in Chicago; Editing by Marguerita Choy)