Andrew Herrington slips on a battered green backpack, stashes a .308 bolt-action rifle under his arm and steps off a boat onto the steep, rocky shores of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
"It's about a half-mile that we're going to walk up to for those traps," he says.
In almost every circumstance, hunting is strictly forbidden at national parks. But there's an exception to that rule. Herrington's job is to hunt at Great Smoky Mountains National Park for an invasive and hugely destructive species: feral hogs.
Through most of the summer, he'll camp out in the backcountry for five days at a time, hunting at night for his prey. Today, he's checking a half-dozen baited traps that they've set near the shores of Fontana Lake before going to check an area where hogs were seen a week before.
The goal is to hunt them, find them and kill them.
Herrington hikes up an old, overgrown road that follows the course of a small creek. The traps are set in these narrow, shaded draws because it's a popular place for hogs when the temperature's right.
"The good thing about traps," he says, "is they work for you 24/7."
A War of Attrition
The pigs that Herrington is after are not your Farmer John variety oinkers. These feral hogs weigh more than 100 pounds on average. They're covered in fur. And they're not native to this part of the country — in fact, they're not native to this country. They're the descendants of wild boars, brought over from Europe decades ago by people who wanted to hunt them. Those boars escaped the preserve where they were being held, made their way to the park and started interbreeding with domestic pigs.
Feral hogs are adaptable animals and they reproduce at a high rate, so it didn't take long for their numbers to explode in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. And a higher population means higher demands on the forests' limited resources.
"If you got the native species — bears, turkeys, deer — that are competing for the same food, they just get out-competed," Herrington says. It's a war of attrition that the native species cannot win. They don't reproduce fast enough.
Herrington explains that to people when they ask about his job. People always have questions when you say you hunt in a park, he says. It's controversial, even in his family. "My wife is a vegetarian and an animal lover, so we have those conversations a lot," he says. "What I tell her is: You like baby bears or do you like pigs? Because every time I pull the trigger, a baby bear gets to live." And his wife understands it. "She doesn't like it, but she understands it," he says.
A Destructive Animal
Hiking up to traps, there is plenty of proof that hogs have been in the area. There are wide swaths of forest floor that are all torn up, like they've been plowed. This is the result of hogs rooting around for food.
And there are other areas — closer to the streams — that look like little swamps. These are called wallows, mud-holes that hogs create to keep themselves cool. The runoff from the swamps can flood the adjacent creek, poisoning native trout and insects.
"It's empty," Herrington says, walking up to the first trap. It's a rectangular structure, about 4 feet tall and 6 feet long, made out of chain-link fence. One side of the cage is open, with a big sheet of metal propped up over it. A trail of corn kernels leads into the cage and stops in a pile at its far end. Just above that pile is a stick, held in place by two bent pieces of rebar. Tied around the middle of the stick is a piece of rope that triggers the open door.
"So when he comes in and he roots, [the] door drops down," Herrington explains. He pushes the stick and the door whooshes down. If it's a pig in the trap, a hog hunter like Herrington will show up to finish it off and drag the carcass into the woods.
The hog hunting program at Great Smoky Mountains National Park has removed or killed more than 13,000 feral hogs since its inception.
There was a time when wildlife techs like Herrington would transport trapped hogs out of the park and into other forests. That's not the case anymore, for a couple of reasons. Feral hogs have been found to carry a number of diseases. If those diseases made their way into the domestic pig population, it could shut down pork production. And North Carolina is one of the largest hog-producing states in the country, so nobody wants feral hogs released anywhere near them.
Some of the diseases can also be contracted by humans. They can carry swine brucellosis, which can cause fevers; leptospirosis, which can be deadly; and swine influenza. That's why, although some have suggested that killed hogs be tested and donated to local food banks, there's no human consumption of these animals.
The other reason is that moving feral hogs from the park to another location is expensive and time-consuming. "You want to talk about fun?" Herrington says. "Try carrying a 225-pound boar out."
He checks a few more traps before returning to the boat. All are empty.
The last stop of the day is different. Herrington puts on a camouflage jacket and packs more gear into the cargo pockets of his green pants. He's stopped the boat on the shore of an area that recently burned in a wildfire.
Firefighters working on that fire reported seeing signs that feral hogs were in the area. The ground is burned black and when the wind blows the right way, the air still smells like smoke. With the understory burned away, you can see longer distances in the forest. It should help with the hunting.
Herrington hikes up a steep hill toward a blackened ridgeline above. Every few minutes, sometimes less, he stops in midstride and pauses. He's listening for anything — a grunt, a rock moving, leaves rustling.
On top of the ridge, he kicks his boot at some charred acorns. "Definitely food here," he says.
He pauses a number of other times, pointing out other signs that hogs have been in the area. There are places where the ground is torn up. There's a car-sized depression at the base of a tree. "This was probably a bedding area before the fire," he says.
Farther along, he finds a sign that's fresher than the fire. "They've been here," he says. "Just a matter of being at the right place at the right time."
Hours later, he finds the freshest sign yet in the valley below: a wallow where the water hasn't settled — and hog tracks.
He rests on a downed log a couple of hundred yards away and gestures to the forest floor. "When they're in this dry litter, you can hear them," Herrington says.
A few minutes later, he pauses in midsentence and raises a hand. He turns his head down the valley a little and slowly moves to a knee. Barely, just barely, he can hear the sound of leaves rustling down the draw. He picks up his rifle and quietly raises it — not to his eye — but in the direction of the sound. He kneels that way for almost a full minute before turning his head. "Turkeys," he says. "I thought things were about to get exciting there."
Two turkeys walk out from behind a bush and strut their way up the draw as Herrington moves back to his seat. If it had been a hog, he says, he would have killed it. No question.
He doesn't enjoy that part of the job. "I enjoy the hunting, you know, all those aspects and the nature stuff. But, you know, you're taking the life of this animal," he says.
And Herrington has a tremendous amount of respect for feral hogs. He calls them the ultimate survivor. They're smart. They're tough. "They're just not meant to be here," he says.
That's why he has to hunt them. The National Park Service is tasked with protecting and preserving native animals and species. Feral hogs are invasive. They compete with native animals for food and they destroy native plants looking for it. "It's pretty cut-and-dry," Herrington says.
He knows that some people will hate him for what he does, and he says he's fine with that. "I'm like the janitor. I'm cleaning up the problems [of] people that were stupid bringing stuff in," Herrington says. "So that's the message I got for everyone: Quit bringing s*** here that's not supposed to be here."
He packs up his stuff, hikes back out to the boat and calls it a day. He'll return to this spot next week, he says, and find the hogs that he was tracking. When he does find them, he'll do what he's paid to do.
A fun side-note: Hog hunter Andrew Herrington credits NPR with helping him find his job. In 1998, he heard an All Things Considered interview with Great Smoky Mountains wildlife tech Rick Varner. "It sounded like a hell of a lot of fun," Herrington says.
Since then, Herrington has made a career of hunting feral hogs, from California's Catalina Island to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where he now works with the subject of that 1998 interview, Rick Varner. We found that interview in NPR's archives — take a listen!