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New bill seeks to ease hunting for feral pigs wreaking havoc in Wine Country

How to tell wild pigs from domestic relatives

Physical characteristics distinguishing feral and domestic pigs

California’s wild pigs are descended from domestic pigs turned feral since their introduction by Spanish missionaries in 1769, and Russian wild boars introduced in Monterey County in the 1920s, according to a University of California report. Here’s how they differ from domestic pigs:

Wild pigs

Hair: Amply covered with coarse long hair

Tail: Straight, covered in hair

Body: Razor-backed, shoulders higher and wider than hindquarters

Tusks: Long and sharp

Head: Longer snout with flat profile

Color: Mostly black, some pied or russet

Young: Dark with horizontal stripes

Domestic pigs

Hair: Sparse, short hair

Tail: Curly, sparse hair

Body: Wide body, flat back

Tusks: Relatively short

Head: Shorter snout, concave profile

Color: Usually white, sometimes russet or pink

Young: Same uniform color as parents

Pigs set free 250 years ago by Spanish missionaries have proliferated and evolved in California, largely untouched by predators, into what some lawmakers, wildlife officials and farmers now say amounts to a growing menace to Wine Country vineyards and suburban yards.

Rooting for food with formidable tusks and elongated snouts, the opportunistic, night-roaming omnivores are especially attracted to irrigated vineyards that offer moist soil in the midst of a prolonged drought.

“It’s really gotten out of hand,” said Duff Bevill, a longtime Healdsburg grape grower who owns and manages 1,200 acres of Sonoma County vineyards. “They’re raising hell in agriculture right now.”

Looking back 50 years, Bevill recalled planting a 1-acre Dry Creek Valley vineyard with about 500 vines, new stakes and drip irrigation lines only to find two months later all the vines “popped out of the ground perfectly, row after row.”

Last summer, he said, feral swine came up from Dry Creek, a year-round source of water released from Warm Springs Dam, uprooting the plants and tearing up the lawn in his backyard.

Following October’s rains, the pigs have disappeared from the valley, but Bevill plans to put heavy-duty, expensive fencing around his yard.

“They’re too smart to go into traps,” he said, before outlining other options, including hunting. “There’s always the .357 pill, but that means you gotta stay up all night.”

Over in Napa Valley, wild pigs are ravaging vineyards and residential property at the edge of cities and towns.

“They’ll just tear it up,” said Eric Sklar, a state Fish and Game commissioner, grape grower and pig hunter. “It’s like a rototiller came through. It’s just getting worse. Every year we have more.”

Sklar expressed his concerns to state Sen. Bill Dodd, a Napa Democrat and longtime friend dating back to when Sklar was a St. Helena city councilman and Dodd was a county supervisor.

Sklar, who has hunted pigs on private land near Lake Sonoma, said current state law makes it “harder than necessary” to combat pig damage by hunting the animals that have no significant predators other than humans.

Dodd responded with a bill last month aimed at streamlining the process, largely by replacing the wild pig tag requirement for hunters, which costs $15 per kill, with a season-long validation, also for $15, that allows an unlimited number of harvests.

“Unfortunately, swelling numbers of wild pigs have become a scourge on California wild lands, endangering sensitive habitat, farms and other animals,” Dodd said this week in a news release.

His bill, SB 856, which has no immediate co-sponsors nor identified opponents, will “increase opportunities to hunt them and do so more economically so that we may bring our pig population under control.”

Dodd, a prolific lawmaker known for legislation on business, insurance and wildfire issues, acknowledged that the wildlife measure is “a little afield from where I usually go.”

But he describes himself as a conservationist and a duck hunter.

Sklar describing feral pigs as “mean and nasty,” with tough, hardened fat over their shoulders and chest. Hunters “eat what they kill,” he said.

In Sonoma County, wild pigs are damaging vineyards, ranch lands and large rural residential properties, largely in the Cloverdale, Geyserville, Healdsburg and Cazadero areas and off the Russian River, said Stacy Martinelli, a Santa Rosa-based biologist with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Wild pigs are on several lists of the most destructive invasive species in the United States, if not the world.

The population boom and accompanying assault on agriculture is nationwide, with an estimated price tag of $2.5 billion a year.

There are 6 million to 9 million hogs running wild in 42 states, according to a National Geographic report last year. Most live in California and in a band of states from Texas to the Carolinas.

In 1982, feral pigs were in 544 counties nationwide; in 2020 they were in 1,915 counties, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

No pig is native to the Western Hemisphere, and they were brought here by early explorers and colonists as far back as at least the 16th century.

They also can pose a public health menace, carrying 30 diseases — including 20 that can be transferred to humans — and five pathogens that can contaminate drinking water.

Pigs were considered the “prime suspect” in the E. coli outbreak in spinach from Salinas Valley fields in 2006, according to a University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources report.

The Department of Fish and Wildlife’s 41-page “Guide to Hunting Wild Pigs in California” lists 29 federal, state or local government lands where pig hunting is allowed.

“Wild pig hunting on public land is poor to very poor and the presence of wild pigs is often infrequent,” it cautions.

The guide presents five wild pig recipes, including Zuni Boar and Hominy Stew and Wild Boar and Kraut Casserole.

A total of 3,905 pigs were harvested in 48 California counties in the 2020-21 season, according to a Fish and Wildlife report based on pig tags returned by hunters. Monterey County recorded a harvest of 1,118 pigs, the most by far, and Sonoma County, with 95 pigs, ranked 10th on the list.

Mendocino County had a harvest of 195 pigs.

The annual pig harvest averaged 3,898 animals from 2018 to 2020, down from the 4,463 average from 2015 to 2017.

Recreational hunting is a “popular method” of pig population control, but is not, by itself, an effective one, according to the UC report.

Wild pigs will move away from areas where they are hunted, and even the most efficient removal programs “will suffer from frequent reinvasion from neighboring pig populations,” the report said.

Jayson Collard, an avid hunter and director of the Friends of Lake Sonoma hunting program, said the impact of Dodd’s bill will be limited because the public cannot hunt on most of the land inhabited by pigs.

Most privately owned areas with pigs “want them there,” he said in an email, noting that Lake Sonoma, a popular pig hunting destination in Sonoma County, is surrounded by such large private ranches.

All control methods, including trapping, are only effective if adjacent property owners work together, the UC report said.

The domestic pigs set free by the padres at Mission San Juan Bautista in 1769 interbred with the Russian wild boars introduced in Monterey County for sport hunting in the 1920s, according to the UC report.

They are now spread among 56 of the state’s 58 counties, with about 75% of the population in the coast region of Mendocino, Sonoma, Santa Clara, Monterey and San Luis Obispo counties.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife doesn’t survey or track the wild pig population, but bases its estimates on the pig license tags returned by hunters.

The same geographic range also includes many of the 29 tracts of public land open to the state’s year-round pig hunting season.

In Sonoma County, hunting on public land is allowed only at Lake Sonoma from November to March and restricted to bow and arrow and crossbow hunters, while some private landowners offer hunting for a considerable fee.

Wild pigs are rooting at the 26,600-acre Eel River Canyon Preserve just acquired by The Wildlands Conservancy on the river straddling the Mendocino and Trinity county border.

“We clearly observe some of the damage,” said Landon Peppel, the conservancy’s resource conservation director.

Wild pigs are smart, adaptable and voracious, consuming 3% of their body weight a day. Mature males weigh 200 pounds or more, females about 175 pounds.

They breed twice a year, with an average litter size of five to six, and live in groups called sounders, led by a dominant female.

“They have a lot going for them in terms of keeping the population high,” said Martinelli, the wildlife biologist.

Coyotes and mountain lions can prey on young pigs, but adults have no natural enemies. “Pigs can be ferocious animals,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

How to tell wild pigs from domestic relatives

Physical characteristics distinguishing feral and domestic pigs

California’s wild pigs are descended from domestic pigs turned feral since their introduction by Spanish missionaries in 1769, and Russian wild boars introduced in Monterey County in the 1920s, according to a University of California report. Here’s how they differ from domestic pigs:

Wild pigs

Hair: Amply covered with coarse long hair

Tail: Straight, covered in hair

Body: Razor-backed, shoulders higher and wider than hindquarters

Tusks: Long and sharp

Head: Longer snout with flat profile

Color: Mostly black, some pied or russet

Young: Dark with horizontal stripes

Domestic pigs

Hair: Sparse, short hair

Tail: Curly, sparse hair

Body: Wide body, flat back

Tusks: Relatively short

Head: Shorter snout, concave profile

Color: Usually white, sometimes russet or pink

Young: Same uniform color as parents

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