Wild pigs creeping closer to farms, destroying property

The critters have been around state since the Gold Rush days.

August 29, 2009 

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SUN-STAR PHOTO BY MARCI STENBERG Wild pigs, like this one, are common in the foothills of Merced County. They are also coming closer to town, and tearing up orchards and irrigation systems.

MARCI STENBERG — Merced Sun-Star

Merced resident Jason Smith has hunted a lot of animals.

He takes his Vizsla dogs out hunting for doves and pheasants. He travels to the foothills to hunt deer with a bow and arrow.

But for Smith, and a lot of others, the toughest animal out there to hunt is wild pigs.

Yep, Merced County boasts a lot of wild pigs. In fact, the state of California has more than 100,000 wild pigs. Well, that's only an estimate, because the pigs are smart, wily and quick.

"I've seen groups of 40 pigs, you take one shot and that's the last you'll see of those pigs that day," Smith said.

But wild pigs are more than just prey for hunters to try to outwit. The intelligent animals are also a scourge to agriculture and to people who happen to live near them.

David Robinson, agricultural commissioner for Merced County, said he's seen newly planted lawns completely destroyed by wild pigs. "They can also destroy an irrigation system overnight," Robinson said.

In the foothills, where the pigs are common, they ruin ponds that cattlemen set up for their cattle. The pigs will dig up the pipes carrying water to the ponds, and the ponds end up dry.

Harry Morse, information officer for the California Department of Fish and Game, said wild pigs originally came to California in the early 1800s. Miners and ranchers brought the pigs to the state to use as food, but pigs are notoriously hard to keep penned up.

"I've seen people use tight hog wire, bury the wire six inches deep and the pigs still figure out how to get through," Morse said.

Those loose pigs years ago quickly turned feral. Then, in the 1920s, strains of the Russian wild boar were turned loose near Monterey. That helped turned the feral pigs into wild pigs.

The wild pigs found in California come in a wide range of colors, from light tan to black to spotted. They're omnivorous, which means they'll eat just about everything. And that's bad news for farmers and ranchers.

"The pigs are starting to come into orchards and vineyards and eating the leaves and the fruit," Morse said. "And they can actually root up the smaller trees, along with ruining the irrigation system."

The wild pig in California is considered a game animal and can be shot by hunters with a valid hunting license. Hunters also need pig tags, and the animals can be hunted all year round. There's no limit on how many pigs can be shot by a hunter in one day. But because they're so smart, not too many hunters end an expedition with a lot of pigs.

"You're lucky if you get one pig a day," Morse laughed.

Some of the boars, or male pigs, grow up to 500 pounds, and they smell bad, Morse said. Hunters usually try to get the smaller female pigs. A female pig can have litters of up to 14 piglets, which grow quickly.

Wild pigs quickly figure out if they're in an area that's being hunted, Morse said. The wild animals will become nocturnal, coming out only at night when no hunters are around.

"These pigs are much smarter than dogs," Morse said. Despite that fact, some hunters use dogs to hunt the wild animals. But pigs have long sharp tusks and can tear up a dog that doesn't know how to deal with them, Morse said.

If the pigs are a nuisance to ranchers or farmers, a depredation permit can be issued, which allows the growers to kill the pigs without a hunting license.

"These wild pigs are really hard to get rid of," Morse said.

Smith agreed. He said he's seen the damage that the pigs can do: "They can make just a huge mess."

Reporter Carol Reiter can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or creiter@mercedsun-star.com.