COLUMBIA -- The after-dark war on wild hogs, coyotes and armadillos in South Carolina has begun, with 535 hunters registering to shoot the invasive creatures in the first week of legal night hunting for them.
The new law passed last year allowed night hunting of armadillos, wild hogs and coyotes. Legislators pushing the law said it was time to declare war on the non-native animals that chew up forests and gardens and attack livestock.
To make the hunt easier, the legislation allows use of bait, electronic calls and night-vision devices.
Night hunting began the last day of February and continues to July 1. Licensed hunters don't need to apply for permits.
However, they must notify the Department of Natural Resources 48 hours before they plan to hunt on specific properties to help law enforcement officers react to complaints of gunfire noise after dark.
In the first week, the agency received requests from 535 hunters on 179 tracts of land, according to Capt. Robert McCullough.
The agency expects the initial rush of requests to level out after a few weeks.
In Beaufort County, DNR's Sgt. Michael Paul Thomas said few permit requests have come from Beaufort and Jasper counties. Most of the permits issued in the region have been in Colleton and Hampton counties, he said.
"The numbers are lower in Beaufort and Jasper, but that may change," he said.
"The hogs are not as rampant in Beaufort County," he added. "There are a certain number in two distinct areas -- along the New River basin and the area around Gardens Corner. In Jasper County, they are spread along the Savannah River basin."
The hog problem is worse in Hampton and Colleton counties, where they have damaged farmland. He believes night hunting will bring some much-needed relief.
"This is one method that should be pretty effective right off the start for controlling hog populations," Thomas said.
He's less optimistic about nighttime coyote hunting.
"There are definitely some coyotes out there," he said, adding that trapping generally works better to control their population.
During debate on the bill in the legislature, law enforcement officers in the agency expressed concerns about safety.
The first week passed without major incident. But as the weather improves and more hunters get out in the forests at night, "that's when we'll get the complaints," McCullough said.
"We'll have to deal with those issues when they come up."
Night hunters using center-fire rifles must be shooting from at least 10 feet above ground, a measure designed to ensure bullets don't carry far past the targets.
The number of night hunters in the state is minuscule compared to the total number of hunters. Last year, the agency sold 966,891 hunting or hunting/fishing licenses.
Several large for-pay hunting operations already have begun advertising for night hunts for wild hogs.
Perry Hudspeth, president of the Hickory Grove Sportsmen Hunt Club in York County, doesn't think many hunters will take advantage of the night opportunities. He especially doesn't like the requirement to hunt from 10 feet up.
While many hunters have experience hunting deer from stands, going after coyotes requires more movement, Hudspeth said. He has rigged a mobile deer stand he can pull through woods and fields behind his truck.
He went out often in the first week and got his first coyote Wednesday night.
"That's one less predator out there," Hudspeth said.