The thrill and satisfaction of stalking wild pigs draws many hunters to the rural hills of Sonoma County, Berkeley author and food activist Michael Pollan among them.
A reluctant hunter at best, he has described taking down a pig in the woods outside Healdsburg as a moment of tremendous elation and pride, like somehow becoming part of a “most improbable drama in which I had somehow found myself playing the hero’s part.”
Wild pigs are among the region’s most abundant game animals and perhaps the most delectable, as well. Their meat is rich and flavorful beyond what anyone accustomed to domestic pork might imagine.
But they also are ferocious, tough and wily, highly adaptive creatures whose impressive ability to elude two-legged carnivores makes them challenging prey in the woods of the North Coast.
The coarse-haired creatures respond quickly to hunting pressure, shifting territory or becoming active only at night when they sense the presence of humans for any length of time, experts say. Plentiful, open private lands provide refuge, as well.
“Most of the time you’re lucky if you even see pigs,” said Harry Morse, a California Fish and Wildlife communications officer and off-duty hunter.
It’s not for lack of reproductive success.
California’s wild pig — a hybridized blend of feral domestic pigs introduced by 18th Century settlers and a type of European boar introduced into Monterey County in the 1920s — breed prolifically, enough that they could triple their numbers each year if left unchecked.
They are considered an exotic, non-native species. And they eat indiscriminately, tearing up the landscape and crowding out native animals.
Thus, state regulations are permissive, allowing year-round wild pig hunting without daily or annual limits. Hunters must carry a hunting license that costs $47.01 for California residents and a pig tag for each animal bagged, $22.42 each.
But the population still remains largely uncontrolled, and now has a foothold in all but two of California’s 58 counties. Wild pigs behave “basically…likely four-footed rototillers running all over,” said Joel Miller, supervising park ranger at Lake Sonoma for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “They will eat just about anything they come across out there in the field, so it can be very damaging to the populations of any kind of ground-nesting bird, reptiles, amphibians. You name it, they’ll eat it.”
Said Morse, “It’s one of those wildlife stories that is a success, whether you want it to be or not.”
The pigs’ negative impact on agricultural lands and open space preserves has turned even some environmentalists into hunters hoping to safeguard native plant and animal species from their destructive foraging.
Pollan wrote about scouting the woods near Healdsburg during his first experiment with killing his own food in his 2006 book “Omnivore’s Dilemma.” The fact pigs are were so widely regarded as pests figured into his decision to try hunting them, he said, an experience he described as adrenaline-filled adventure that produced both pride and ambivalence.
Local pig hunters are successful enough to have reported 295 kills in Sonoma County during the 2014 season. Hunters in Sonoma and Mendocino counties bagged nearly 600 that season, accounting for about one in six of the 3,582 taken throughout the state.