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