Hungry herds of wild pigs invade foothills yards

AHWAHNEE -- Wild pigs roaming the Central California foothills are turning rural yards into hog heaven, ripping through lawns and shrubbery as they seek roots, worms and other buried edibles.

The pigs have roamed the state for decades, but this year something has driven more of them into inhabited areas, experts say. And they seem to be more destructive.

"It's like somebody's out there all night with a tractor," said Clu Cotter, a California Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist who is responsible for Madera and Fresno counties.

Hungry herds ranging from a dozen up to 40 pigs can quickly transform a well-manicured yard into something resembling a war zone. They destroy drip irrigation systems for a cool slurp of water. They have ripped through barbed-wire fences to pig out on lawns.

The animals can be foul tempered, especially when they're protecting their young. But when one is shot, the rest of the herd usually vanishes into the night. They're smart and wary, Cotter said.

Some homeowners in the foothills have permits to shoot the invaders. Others have traps set.

Glenn Harmelin is among those who have taken the battle to the pigs.

Night after night the swine would return to his yard outside Ahwahnee, stripping his berry bushes and leaving a ruined mess.

"They're like rototillers," Harmelin said. "... Anywhere there was water, they went for it."

So Harmelin got a Fish and Game permit to shoot the raiders. About three weeks ago, he shot two. He hung one 80-pound carcass on the barbed-wire pasture fence, right where the herd ripped through.

His message was clear: Set hoof here one more time and you're bacon.

The herd apparently understood. They haven't come back.

Nobody is exactly sure why the pigs seem to be wilder this year than usual. Harmelin believes wildfires have driven them farther afield from where they typically roam. Glenn and Nancy Harmelin's yard, for example, had escaped the pigs' notice until a lightning fire earlier this summer scorched Crooks Mountain near their home.

Others blame lack of rainfall. The last two years have been substantially drier than usual.

Cotter said drought conditions have reduced the amount of food available for the pigs, pushing them out of their normal forage patterns.

California's wild pigs are descendants of the European wild boar, introduced to Monterey County in the 1920s, and domestic swine, imported by European settlers in the 1700s, according to the Fish and Game Department. They have been seen in at least 56 of California's 58 counties.

They're expanding their ranges but their numbers will drop in dry years, because the food isn't there. They'll eat anything and can double or triple their population in a few good years, said Doug Updike, the Department of Fish and Game's wild-pig program coordinator in Sacramento.

In North Fork, Madera County Supervisor Tom Wheeler said the pigs have ripped into his yard six times this summer and three times last year. At night, he has heard them snorting out in the woods and in his yard.

He has a permit to defend his turf against the invaders. So last week, after turning on his yard light and seeing about 30 pigs with one facing down his dog in a standoff, Wheeler got his shotgun.

"I just shot at them in their rears and they all took off," Wheeler said.

Earlier this month, about 15 pigs tore up the lawn at Hillside Baptist Church in North Fork.

Last summer, pigs stripped the grass from one of the greens on the River Creek Golf Course near the foothills town of Ahwahnee.

So far this year, the swine have spared the golf course on Grub Gulch Road. But last year, they were a real nuisance, golf pro Jim Monson said.

Monson recalled watching them last summer dig a 6 a.m. breakfast from 500 square feet of fairway turf before they vanished into the dawn.

"Almost every night, they were coming out here," Monson said. "I'd never known pigs could do so much damage."

Once hunters went to work, the golf course raiders gave up. They haven't been back since the first frost of last autumn, Monson said.

Not far from the golf course, Kirk Moulin said that after pigs ripped out their lawn last summer, he and his wife, Monika, invited Fish and Game officers to set up a trap in the yard. But the only creature trapped was the couple's dog, Pepper.

This summer, there are redwood chips instead of a lawn, he said.

Cole Masuen has been hunting wild pigs in the foothills for more than 20 years, helping folks whose homes and gardens have been ruined. The wild pigs are dangerous, said Masuen, who also is a building contractor. If they're cornered or protecting their young, they'll fight.

"They're just a ball of muscle," Masuen said.

That is why the wild pigs make good eating. The meat is a little more lean than domestic pork but it tastes better, Masuen said. Masuen gives away many of the pigs he shoots because the law forbids their sale. It's open season year-round.

There is no special recipe for wild pig meat, he said. It's just another pork roast. And this year there is plenty to go around.