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January 10-16, 2007

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Wild pigs

This little piggie: Some in the pro-pig camp compare them to California's grizzly bears of yore.

Hog Wild

With the population of non-native wild pigs on the rise, hunters and environmentalists consider the legacy of the grizzly, the beauty of natural selection and the pleasures of some really good eating

By Alastair Bland

On the green hills of California, under the virgin oaks and over the rolling countryside, the first explorers from the Old World observed large, brown, muscle-backed grizzly bears--sometimes small sleuths of them--grazing over the land. The big bruins thrived on acorns and dug up bulbs, roots and mushrooms, and the frontiersmen, in turn, hunted them for sport, meat and cooking oil.

Fast forward 165 years, and many hikers in Sonoma and Napa valleys, the South Bay, and many counties in the Coast Range are observing scenes similar to those reported by the pioneers and missionaries: herds of hairy omnivores with dull eyes and keen noses browsing the hillsides for food.

But the grizzly bear vanished from California in the 1920s, and the animal that snorts and roots about in the chaparral and oak ecosystem today is the wild pig, Sus scrofa. While many hikers cherish encounters with this species, others are not at all pleased with its prosperity in the New World. This swine is not native to the Americas, and as its numbers and range continue to grow, the pigs put increasing pressure on California's native flora and fauna. Many stewards of the land want them out.

"They're just out of control in some parts," says Brendan O'Neil, a state ecologist working with several Northern California conservation-based organizations. "They eat everything and they dig up the ground to get it. You come out to one of these parks in the wintertime when it's raining, and it looks like someone's rototilled the place. The pigs have just hammered the oak tree recruitment, and there are almost none left in some places."

The Pig Problem

Sus scrofa's history in California dates back to the arrival of the Spanish, who tended not to go conquistadoring without a sturdy supply of live pigs in the hold. Successive waves of European immigrants introduced more and more farm pigs, many of which escaped into the hills and established viable populations.

In 1925, the real trouble began when George Gordon Moore, an affluent landowner, introduced Eurasian wild boars to his ranch near Carmel. Not content to reside on their host's spacious property, where Moore and his hunting buddies frequently took shots at them, the pigs spread out to explore and settle the attractive frontier. They interbred with the feral domestic pigs, as the two groups reside in the same genus and species, and from an evolutionary perspective, the resulting creature has done very well. Wild pigs occupied only 10 of California's 58 counties in the 1960s. Today, they dwell in 56, with only San Francisco's environment being too metropolitan for piggy tastes and Alpine County's too high, dry and desolate.

"The pigs just haven't moved into Alpine yet," says Doug Updike, a wildlife biologist with the Department of Fish and Game's Sacramento office. "There are some pretty nasty, rugged regions in Europe, and they live there just fine."

Updike, a recreational pig hunter himself, concedes that pigs significantly impact Californian ecosystems, yet he takes a relatively neutral stance on the pig issue.

"As a hunter, you naturally want more of them. I'm also an ecologist, though, and I'm interested in native species. So when I shoot a pig, I'm gratified both as a hunter and as an ecologist."

Updike says that the pig "problem" is not entirely a problem. While many non-native plants pounce on the slightest opportunity to colonize freshly turned earth, there are numerous natives that benefit from the aeration of the soil. In fact, it has been hypothesized by some pig watchers that the wild hogs actually fill the shoes of the vanished California grizzly, thus occupying a crucial niche in California's biodiversity left vacant since the bears were exterminated.

Bill Walton, park ranger at Salt Point State Park, lives and works among Sonoma County pigs, and has observed them and their relationship with the land for decades. Walton has often surveyed pig-impacted areas several days after the rooting, and has observed that flowers and grasses seem to benefit from the disturbance, native species included. Moreover, the activity may actually diminish erosion by creating miniature check dams that catch runoff and contain it in small reservoirs.

"They get blamed for a lot of stuff," he says, "but I'm not sure it's always that valid. A lot of hunters like to blame them so they can hunt them, but the pigs aren't only bad; they definitely aerate the soil. You can see where the grass is growing in the areas where they've rooted, and if they don't come back to that area, then there's not always real harm."

Hoofing for Pork

No pig story in contemporary journalism would be complete without the personal account of a hunting trip in which the soft-skinned, wide-eyed writer takes his notebook and bumbles through the woods behind a pair of hill-toughened gunslingers who use delightfully rustic language and offer traditional wisdom. So this fall, I arranged a hunt. Bill Walton, the park ranger at Salt Point State Park, also happens to be the father of Orion Walton, an old college friend, and I connected with the family in their remote country home in the Sonoma County hills in early November.

I pulled up in their driveway at 11am, and Bill and I sat down to chat on the back porch, which overlooks a small creek 20 yards below. His sons, Orion and Luke, were out surfing, so Bill and I talked pigs one-on-one. Walton's job as a ranger is to keep an eye on the goings-on of human visitors at Salt Point State Park. All the while, as a resident of the remote countryside and the owner of 80 acres, he keeps an eye on the local pigs, which regularly trample his terrain. Walton has no qualms about shooting them on occasion.

"But we're not hunters," he says of himself and his sons. "We just go out walking--and we take our guns."

The boys arrived home just past noon. Their mother, Nancy, scrambled us some eggs and patted out some turkey sausages for the griddle, and we had a late breakfast.

"Ideally, you want to get a pig early in the morning," Bill said at the table. "That way you've got all day to deal with it. If we get one today, we'll be butchering it in the dark, and it's a lot of work."

After dispatching a pig, most hunters disembowel the animal and leave the innards at the scene of the kill, which the dead pig's mates often return to devour. For the hunter, it may be a mile-long walk with the carcass over rough country to reach the car, ATV or log cabin. Upon arriving back at the homestead, the hunter-turned-butcher generally swills some black coffee, tosses the grounds to the earth, rolls up his sleeves, sharpens his Bowie knife and hefts the pig onto a meat hook, where it hangs by its chin.

The skin, which may be infested with hundreds of ticks, is sliced around the neck, down the throat to meet the long belly incision, then outward and down along the inside of each limb, and finally around the wrists and ankles. The hide can now be peeled off the carcass with a pair of vice-grips or farm-tough fingers. The skin may come off easily, or it may not. The Waltons told me of the time their neighbor brought home a pig whose hide was so intractable he had to use a rope and his ATV to pull the skin off. After the skinning, out come the hacksaws, butcher knives and fillet knives, and three hours later, the pig has been reduced to pieces, with approximately one-third of its original body weight going to the meat grinder, freezer and smoker.

Wild-pig sausage is a popular dish among hunters, and some inspired individuals use the animal's own intestine as casing. Others enjoy the liver and the heart. Orion told me he has often wondered what pig lung tastes like. His favorite means of preparation is to cut the backstrap (loin) into "butterflies" and sautÈ the meat in butter and garlic.

After breakfast, we prepared to leave. At the front door, Orion swiped a pair of 30-30 rifles from the pantry, and we went outside and piled into the cab of the pickup, as our walk would begin with a one-mile drive to the end of the family's private dirt road. Bill took the wheel as Orion and I squeezed into the passenger seat. We bounced along for several minutes through forest and clearing and finally pulled up to the head of the Waltons' well-worn walking trail. The sky was a hazy blue, with a thickening layer of clouds coming in from the west. There would soon be rain, which usually brings out the pigs, Orion told me. (He did not specify where they hang out when it's dry.) The region had had an inch and a half of precipitation the week before, but neither father nor son was particularly confident in our prospects of bagging a pig, for they hadn't seen much activity in the area recently.

We climbed out of the truck, grabbed our guns and notebooks and slowly ambled up the trail. The terrain here was open, and it afforded a mile-wide view of the surrounding hillsides.

"Sometimes, you'll see them way across the valleys on slopes a half-mile away," said Bill as I took notes. "Then you have to decide if it's worth going and sneaking up on them. I guess it depends on how badly you need to kill a pig. Mainly, I just like to be out here because it's so nice out. Killing a pig is just an occasional bonus."

Pig signs were abundant. Their tracks, which a trained eye can distinguish from deer prints, crisscrossed the trail and were especially visible in dried patches of mud. Some had been left by huge pigs, while others may not have been pigs at all. Bill and Orion frequently stopped to study old imprints in the soil, and sometimes they debated whether a cryptic track in the dirt had been put there by a mountain lion, a neighbor's dog named Sam or a plain old pig. Still other porcine tracks proved to be "beef" prints (hill-talk for "cow"). We found pig scat, too, which looks a bit like a human's. The small piles appeared in clusters, and Bill said that it's common practice among pigs to defecate in a single spot.

"They seem to have a sort of understanding of using a common area. They're really clean that way," he explained. "They aren't dirty animals, and they don't shit where they sleep."

We walked slowly and talked softly. Subject matter flowed from pigs to sudden oak death to airplanes to spear guns to scuba diving.

"You know the pig hunting is slow when you've started to talk about scuba diving," I observed mid-afternoon while sitting idle by the side of a dry creek.

"Oh, we're not hunting," said Bill without missing a beat. "We're just walking around in the woods with our guns."

But really, the pig hunting was slow. The tensest moment of the day came with the flushing of a heavy-footed squirrel. There was also a moment of suspense as we neared the Walton's small hillside reservoir. We trudged up a steep bank, the pond just over the top, when we heard a loud snort, then another. The noise continued in a series of grunts.

"A pig!" whispered Orion. Subtle yet instant changes in his demeanor, posture and countenance transformed him into a focused predator. He tightened his grip on his rifle, and I ducked out of the line of fire. But his dad, 10 feet ahead and placidly chewing on a sprig of wild grass, came over the crest and waved away our excitement. There was no hog wallowing in the mud. The grunting, it turned out, was nothing more than the drain pipe slurping down the thick summer sludge which traveled via gravity through a long hose to the Waltons' property, where it ran into the powerhouse to generate electricity.

With my pen and paper in hand I trailed Bill and Orion around the pond to the upstream end where a trickling creek entered.

"You know," said Bill as we each leaned against a tree at the base of the steep stream gully. "I have a theory that these pigs have a magical door. It's hidden in these woods somewhere and they go in it whenever they like, and they hang out in this place until they feel like coming out again. That's the only thing I can think of, because where the hell do they all go?"

Some days, he said, they will see several dozen pigs; other days, zero. The swine are very alert and cautious, Orion said, and perhaps they were just keeping out of sight. But then Bill told a story that illustrated how amazingly oblivious the naturally myopic pigs can be of their surroundings. He was driving home from work on the dirt road one evening when he saw a group of wild hogs snorting and rooting in a roadside meadow. The pigs did not seem to notice the truck, and Bill decided to get out and see how close he could get. Plain as day and six feet tall, the park ranger moved ever closer to the herd. Of the dozen, not a single pig noticed him. In a few minutes, he was standing among them like a shepherd with his flock and the animals kept rooting, completely unaware while Bill stood in awe.

But the pigs would be wise to remain a bit more vigilant when rooting on the Waltons' property. Orion told me of the time years ago when he, Luke and Bill stumbled upon a herd that panicked together and made a break for it. There were several piglets, or "hot dogs," in the group. One tried to run straight uphill but the little thing floundered on its spindly piglet legs. Orion chased it down and swept it up in his arms. They decided to take it home. There, among their fruit trees, garden and grapevine, the Waltons made it a comfortable pen. They fed it well and raised it right and even bred it with a neighbor's hog. They gave their pet all it could ask for in life until Thanksgiving Day, when they ate it.

Orion tells another hunting story. Upon spotting a group of pigs rooting through the soil upslope from him one day, Orion took aim at a big one, fired and hit it squarely in the torso. While its companions fled in alarm, the wounded pig lost its footing and tumbled down the slope right to Orion's feet. The pig, nearly 200 pounds, regained its footing and tried to escape, but it couldn't keep its balance. Afraid of wounding it further if he took a hasty shot, Orion fell on the pig and slit its throat with his knife. He reports that it died very quickly.

In fact, that pig probably lived a mighty good life in the quiet hills of Sonoma County, eating acorns, mushrooms and carrion. It just had one really bad day, like any pig that gets sacked by a hunter. All elements considered, the oak-tree country seems like a good place for a pig to live. It beats life on the farm, certainly, and death in the slaughterhouse.

Pig-Making Machines

The overwhelming argument against unabated growth of wild pigs is their habit of digging up and destroying the landscape. In their search for edible bulbs, roots, mushrooms, tubers and grubs, pigs rip and root with their toes and tusks, turning over the soil and disrupting plant populations. The extent to which this actually harms the order of things is a subject of debate. Yet the physical effects of rooting can be visibly striking.

It is also fashionable among pigs to bathe in mud. They seek out natural springs and blend the cool mineral waters with mountain soil to produce thick and soothing lathers. It's fine treatment for their tick-infested hides, but naturalists don't like it one bit.

"Most animals just drink from springs, not wallow in them," ecologist Brendan O'Neil says. "There are tons of springs in the Bay Area that are just trashed because of pigs. And in the plant community, there's been a loss of bulb truffles and geophytes because of them. Native Americans gathered some of the same plants, but they didn't root out the whole thing. They left the bulb there for future generations. I don't think pigs have that sort of ethic of preserving resources."

The state regulations on hunting pigs, while not as lax as they were just a few years ago, are still relatively loose. A hunting tag giving permission to shoot runs $16.80 on top of a $35 hunting license, and there is no limit to the number of tags a hunter may purchase in a year. (An elk tag, by contrast, costs upwards of $300 and is issued through a lottery system.) Most pigs get shot in the winter and spring, but if averaged out smoothly over 12 months, the rate cruises along steadily at about 100 pigs bagged every day in California and over 30,000 annually. State trappers shoot several thousand more, with most of the meat going to charity.

But none of this is enough to balance the pigs' wild birth rate, and with no reliable wild predators, the population is growing. State wildlife experts estimate that between 200,000 and 1.5 million wild pigs live in California, and in some parts of the state are as densely packed as 250 to 300 individuals per 6,000 acres. Mountain lions occasionally attack them, but the cats prefer such daintier prey as deer. Meanwhile, private property and many parklands serve as accidental refuges where the animals live and breed in peace, continually moving outward to replenish hunter-impacted regions.

"We're never going to eliminate pigs from state parks, no doubt," says O'Neil. "They're like a weed. Mountain lions and coyotes will take piglets now and then, but once they reach 350 or 400 pounds--which just takes a few years--they are just pig-making machines. All we can really do is try to reduce them to manageable levels."

A sow may annually produce two litters of up to 12 youngsters in each batch, and although most piglets will not survive, the pigs have expanded their geographic range for over five decades. Moreover, pig density is still increasing in regions that offer quality living conditions and respite from sport hunting. The pigs even populate four of the Channel Islands, although extermination efforts there have resulted in some success.

Xeno Piggies

But do they belong out there? Sus scrofa certainly isn't native to our country. Then again, neither are we. Other examples of alien invaders come to mind. Down at the equator, iguanas rafted seaward from the South and Central American coasts to colonize the Galápagos Islands. They settled in for the long run, competed for food with the natives, evolved a bit and have since become respected citizens. Locally, striped bass were brought to San Francisco Bay in 1879 from the East Coast and today are a coveted game fish. Grapevines, which slither over half the state and which everyone just adores, came from Eastern Europe.

So maybe it's about time the United States gave our wild porcine neighbors their metaphoric green cards. This is not, after all, a border-control issue; the animals are already here, and in droves. And if it is really the goal of the government to eliminate pigs and other non-native creatures, why not prove true to the mission statement and work to reinstate animals that have been evicted, such as that biggest 'shroom-hunting, earth-rooting beast of all, the grizzly bear?

The answer is that there isn't room anymore for their kind in California, because this place has changed in the last century. It is occupied by 35 million people, with 900,000 acres of prime bear habitat overgrown with grapevines alone--and the people and the grapes sure aren't going anywhere. Why should the pigs have to leave?

"That's a question of what society wants," says Hall Cushman, professor of biology at Sonoma State University. "There are two main viewpoints. Hunters see them as a good thing, a game animal, and ecologists see them as an exotic species and a problem."

But O'Neil remains skeptical of theories favoring the swine as part of a viable ecosystem.

"The way I see things, there's a lot of floristic diversity that can result from the pigs, but that's not necessarily native flora. Do they replicate what the bears once did? Well, the state of California had maybe 10,000 grizzlies. We're talking about a lot more pigs than that. Their impact is out of hand."

Cushman takes the side of the naturalists and feels that pigs should be controlled and eliminated if possible, yet he recognizes that we live in "the age of biological invasions" or the "homogenization" of the earth, and he concedes that pigs are probably here to stay.

"Society is becoming more and more globalized," he says. "An unavoidable consequence of our globalization is that other species become globalized, too. Pigs have been added to this ecosystem, and they're doing just fine here."

That seems like as good a way as any to end this discussion. But it won't end--not as long as pigs dig in the earth and bathe in the mud. In California, their population continues to grow, and a quick glance around the earth shows us that Sus scrofa is thriving on a global scale, too, as the species now inhabits in a wild state every continent except for Antarctica, plus thousands of small islands. Everywhere, naturalists, landowners, farmers and golf-course managers will cry out against them, hunters will step up to the plate with their rifles and bows, and for better or worse, the bounty of wild pork will go on and on.

Smart & Wily

Pigs to be proud of

Reading about the "pig problem" almost inevitably projects to readers the image of a pest animal with the unappealing charisma of a rat or a pigeon. However, seeing a wild pig in the flesh is entirely different: there before you is among the wiliest and toughest of all mammals on earth. Strong, smart, muscular, fast, wild and a potential danger, it is less reminiscent of a cow than it is of a bear, and the sight of a herd of pigs in the forest can take your breath away and stop you in your tracks. To see some up close, go hiking. Good bets are Austin Creek State Recreation Area and Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve (in Guerneville: 707.869.2015), Henry Coe State Park (in Santa Clara County: 408.779.2728), Pinnacles National Monument (in Monterey County: 831.389.4485), Lake Sonoma (in northern Sonoma County, bow and cross-bow hunting only; 916.445.3406) and Salt Point State Park (in northern Sonoma County: 707.847.3221). --A.B.

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