Search and Destroy

(L) Some of the most evident damage from pigs results from when they root around for food (seen here to the grass at Toro Park). Pigs’ noses are so sharp they can smell water on grass and small insects and nuts underground. (UR) Just as the sun rose on the morning of Saturday, July 31, hunting guide Tom Willoughby led his client for the day through a sprawling San Ardo ranch to find a wild pig. 

TORO PARK SHOWS A DIFFERENT FACE AT 12:30AM. WITH THE MOON SMOTHERED BEHIND A LAYER OF CLOUDS, THE PARK’S TOWERING OAKS STAND AS SHADOWS OF THEMSELVES. About a dozen cattle from a nearby ranch have moved in for a midnight graze and a choir of screeching owls amplify the Hitchcockian mood.

Bryan Flores, a county parks supervisor, marches through the park on a mission. When he speaks he whispers, and he makes regular stops to listen for signs of movement. Since Toro Park reopened in April, parks crews have been arriving in the morning to find large swaths of the grassy turf and sections of trails completely torn up. It’s the same at Lake San Antonio and has cost the parks department tens of thousands of dollars this year. Flores knows, generally, who the culprits are, though he has yet to see their faces. After about 45 minutes with no luck, Flores heads back to his car, knowing he will find new damage in the morning.

As he prepares to leave, a train of stumpy silhouettes silently trot across the park’s front lawn. As they gather, a snort gives them away. The stumpy silhouettes are a group of wild swine, on time for their early morning ritual – tear up the earth and find food.

Now crouched behind a live oak about 100 yards from where the pigs stand, Flores struggles to get a count. Is it eight? Twelve? Before he can shine his flashlight, a subtle shift in the night breeze presses against his back. The sudden hint of human aroma sends the stumpy silhouettes scrambling.

The chase is on. Flores’ goal, however, is not to catch the pigs, or even keep up with them, but rather just keep them in sight, for as long as possible, to find where they are coming from and exactly how many there are so his team can set up an appropriate number of traps and eliminate the population. Staying close to the ground, Flores follows the pigs across the park, jumping behind one landmark to the next to shield his scent. Twenty minutes in, the pigs disappear into the brush as a distant pack of coyotes howl.

“Fuck this, time to get out of here,” Flores says. He makes it back to his car but, instead of calling it a night, he decides his responsibility as parks supervisor requires one final sweep, this time in his truck. The valiant effort turns up empty by the time he reaches the end of the park. As he turns around to head back, Flores finally meets his vandals: a group of 20 wild pigs glowing in his headlights, ranging in size from 30 to 250 pounds and drinking from a puddle right next to the roaming cattle.

“This is going to be a little more difficult than we thought,” Flores says.

FROM A CONSERVATION BIOLOGIST’S PERSPECTIVE, wild pigs do not belong in California, nor in the United States, though experts say it is unlikely at this point they will ever leave. Although they didn’t evolve here, pigs have made a home in Monterey County at the expense of some established residents, from farmers and their crops to native habitats, plants and animals. Their success in this nonnative land is owed to a mixture of factors ranging from natural to political.

A sow, or mama pig, can produce a litter of five to eight piglets in three months, three weeks and three days. Doing the math, this means they can technically have up to three litters per year but the annual average is closer to 1.5. Still, wild pigs are the most prolific large mammal on Earth, according to researchers at Texas A&M University. They prefer vegetarian options but pigs are omnivores, which allows an expanded menu when times get tough – and when times get tough, pigs can get aggressive, breaking into farm fields, destroying crops, and disrupting native habitats in search of food. Although coyotes and mountain lions are known to pick off young piglets, by the time pigs reach 50 pounds – mature adults often weigh between 150 and 300 pounds – the effort required makes them unattractive to the predators, allowing pig populations to roam largely unpressured by the top of the local food chain.

Of all unchecked mammal populations, unchecked pigs may be hardest to manage, says Reginald Barrett, a recently retired UC Berkeley professor who is considered the “godfather” of California wild pig research.

“Pigs can go from one per square mile to 100 per square mile in three years,” he says. Since the 1970s, Barrett has produced several papers examining the species, their impact and possible avenues for mitigation. His work is often cited in modern pig research. “They can reproduce so fast that you’d have to kill 70 percent of them per year just to keep the pig population even. With two years of good rain and a good crop of acorns, you’d see wild pigs on the front page of every newspaper in California.”

The cost of such a pig population can be severe. A 2018 report out of the state Assembly estimated wild pigs cause about $2 million in damage to commercial agriculture and $4 million in ecological damage per year. A California Fish and Wildlife Department report on pig hunting, also from 2018, showed Monterey County had the largest concentration of pigs out of anywhere in the state. Hunters here took out nearly three times as many wild pigs as any other California county.

The term “wild pigs” is a catchall for two species. There is the feral hog, which Barrett says is simply a domestic pig – think Babe – that has adapted to life in the wild. Then there is the European wild boar, which is hairier, more muscular, can have large tusks and is generally better suited for living in the wild.

Pigs are considered an invasive species and, in California, it is illegal to transport a live invasive species, whether it is a eucalyptus tree, pampas grass, or a wild piglet. Feral hog populations owe their existence here to the Spanish, who brought domesticated pigs to California in the 1700s as livestock while they developed their missions. The European wild boar, on the other hand, owes its fate here in California and the United States to a single Monterey County resident: Jazz-age socialite George Gordon Moore.

“George Gordon Moore bears all the responsibility for bringing the European wild boar into California,” Barrett says.

Moore, who owned ranches throughout the world, bought Rancho San Carlos in Carmel Valley in the 1920s and transformed the ranch into a rural escape for his ultra-wealthy friends, according to the Santa Lucia Conservancy, a nonprofit that now owns and preserves much of the property.

A penchant for decadence, Moore’s lavish parties were the stuff of lore. It is rumored F. Scott Fitzgerald, who met Moore in the 1920s, modeled his most iconic character, Jay Gatsby, after him. Moore liked to host hunting expeditions and, after being introduced to wild boar hunting in Belgium, he decided to import three European boar and nine sows to his ranch in North Carolina. He then brought the same number to Carmel Valley.

Moore outlines all of this in a 1963 letter to Stuyvesant Fish, whose family owned the Palo Corona Ranch in Carmel Valley between the 1920s and mid-1990s. The letter, held by the Big Sur Land Trust and published in a 2002 edition of Ventana Wilderness Alliance’s periodical The Double Cone Quarterly – now out of print – begins, “Dear Stuyvie: You would like to know where the wild boar originated that I turned loose on the Rancho San Carlos, etc.”

Toward the end of the letter, Moore writes, “The last time I saw William Randolph Hearst, Sr., he said ‘your pigs have reached San Simeon.’”

Search and Destroy

(L) Jazz-age socialite George Gordon Moore introduced European wild boar to the United States and California as game for his hunting expeditions. He brought three wild boar and nine sows to his Carmel Valley property, Rancho San Carlos, in the 1920s. (UR) At Toro Park, the county’s park supervisor Bryan Flores (LR) found a sounder, or group, of about 20 pigs causing damage to the turf. The parks department, with help from a U.S. Department  of Agriculture wildlife trapper, set up pig traps near hot spot areas; the pigs are most active at night  (UR)

WILD PIGS HAVE SINCE FLOURISHED IN CALIFORNIA AND THIS HAS LED TO A NUMBER OF PROBLEMS.

Just this year, officials at the Hastings Natural History Reservation in Carmel Valley reported to the state that sounders of up to 16 pigs were routing research plots, eroding the wetlands and “potentially displacing native animals… causing extensive damage.” One farmer near Rancho San Lucas reported, “Wild pigs are destroying the fences and actually eating the fence posts.” Another landowner near Lockwood reported, “When it gets dry the wild pigs come into my domestic hogs. They fight the [males], breed my sows, and poke holes in my fence… With the 8 wild hogs that broke my fence last night I need to get them gone.”

Wild pigs are suspected to have played a role in the deadly 2006 E. coli outbreak. The strain that sickened more than 200 people across the country, and killed three, was traced back to raw spinach from ranches in Monterey and San Benito counties. The strain was later found in wild pigs, cow manure and local river water. Although wild pigs are known to break into leafy green row crops, no conclusive evidence has placed the 2006 outbreak entirely on the shoulders of swine.

Jeff Cann, a Monterey County-based biologist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, says in areas with a large agriculture presence, wild pigs threaten food safety. “There is also just the straight damage to the crop,” Cann says. “When they get into row crops, pigs are very efficient in causing a lot of damage.”

Monterey County Agriculture Commissioner Henry Gonzales says growers have lately turned their attention to monitoring romaine lettuce. Wild pigs have long posed a “big problem” for some agricultural operations, he says. It took years for the local spinach industry to recover after 2006.

“There was a tremendous impact on the spinach industry for many years,” Gonzales says. “Today, if growers see any signs of pigs or other animals, they will not harvest the crops from that field or area. They loathe having an E. coli outbreak because it ruins everything. An outbreak is not just going to impact that one crop. It’s going to impact you for some time.”

The catastrophic potential of wild pigs has led the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife to maintain a depredation program, a sort of a grassroots method that gives landowners special permissions to take pig management into their own hands. According to state data, there are 165 active depredation permits in Monterey County. The Monterey County Parks Department is one such permit holder.

Flores, now interim chief of Monterey County Parks as of Aug. 13, says county parks have been dealing with pigs for years but the problem has ramped up since 2017. In 2019, wild pigs, which do much of their work at night, destroyed roughly 60 percent of the grass turf in Toro Park, snapped sprinkler heads, broke water lines that caused flooding and eroded river banks, racking up a tab of around $70,000 in damage. Wild pigs have also wreaked havoc near Lake San Antonio, another county park. Flores says park rangers have tried other methods, from noisemakers to motion-activated lights; however, the most effective tactics have been those allowed through the depredation permit.

“If rangers see wild hogs near Lake San Antonio, they are definitely going to shoot them,” Flores says. At Toro Park, with Highway 68 and housing nearby, firing a gun into open space carries too much risk, so the parks department contracts with a wildlife trapper, who helps lure the wild pigs into steel cages. According to state law, once trapped, there is only one way out for a wild pig.

Jon Anthony, head ranger with Monterey County Parks, says poisoning is not only illegal but unethical. The way to honor the pig, he says, is to make it painless and ensure every attempt is made to keep the carcass from going to waste.

“Shooting is the only method. You must put them down in a timely manner with a proper caliber, lead-free ammunition,” Anthony says. “My location of choice for putting a hog down rapidly is behind the ear, angled slightly forward so it gets right in the brainstem and they drop immediately. There is no pain. I’ve hunted my entire life and I never want to see an animal suffer, even if it’s a hog that has caused me a lot of grief and a lot of work. It’s not that animal’s fault that it’s here. So, absolutely, I feel a responsibility to do it ethically and quickly. And a responsibility to make sure, if at all possible, the carcass is used.”

After the pig drops, Anthony says there is a 45-minute window in which he has to skin the pig, remove the organs and get the carcass to a cool place in order to preserve the meat. Anthony says the meat is then often given away – since it cannot legally be sold – or, as a last resort, buried in the park (see sidebar).

“This process is the best we can do,” Anthony says. “Even if it’s a pig that has been tearing up your lawn, you should still respect that animal because it was alive and it was a living thing.”

IT’S 5:17AM AND TOM WILLOUGHBY BRINGS HIS WHITE PICKUP TRUCK TO A SLOW HALT along the winding, shadowy hillsides of a sprawling San Ardo ranch. As he opens the door to step out and examine the area, the truck’s cabin light flicks on and illuminates the scope on the semi-automatic rifle riding shotgun, held between the legs of Willoughby’s client, Jose Rapadas of South San Francisco.

As Willoughby enters the shine of the headlights, he spits out some chewing tobacco and kicks up some dirt, noting which way the breeze takes the dust. Rapadas, still seated, fiddles with his gun strap while the sound of crickets and rumbling stomachs break the early morning silence. For the price of $1,050, Willoughby guarantees clients will see a wild pig within shooting distance. Whether a client kills the pig depends on the skill of the client. Whether the pig is a wild boar or feral hog depends on chance.

Daylight is beginning to touch the barley and oat fields surrounding the truck. Since wild pigs do not sweat, they rarely show their faces while the sun is out, especially in late July. Willoughby is running out of time. Frustrated, he spits out more tobacco and grabs his binoculars.

“I see another pig coming,” Willoughby says. He switches the car into drive and shoots down the hillside. Rapadas’ rifle rattles against the dashboard as Willoughby pulls the car around and cuts off the path of the pig, which is still 300 yards away. The two men hop out of the truck and quickly steady the rifle onto a tripod. Willoughby peers through his binoculars, Rapadas through his scope. As the pig enters a range of about 150 yards, a sonic boom erupts from the gun. The shot misses and the pig changes direction. Boom. The pig hits the ground but squirms frantically, kicking up a cloud of dirt. Boom. Boom.

As the dust settles, so does the pig. The job is finished. The service is rendered. The customer is happy. Willoughby pulls the truck up next to the animal and notes that the deceased is a male wild boar and points out the large tusks. He is impressed.

“That’s a big son of a bitch! Probably 270 pounds,” Willoughby says. After posing for some photos, Rapadas and Willoughby load the boar onto the truck bed. Thirty minutes later, Rapadas has a victory cigar between his teeth and Willoughby has the pig hanging upside down with its hide, head and internal organs removed. Willoughby gives his client directions to the nearby meat processing plant, where the pig will turn into bacon, ham and sausage for the Rapadas family.

“Hell yes, I will do this again,” Rapadas says.

This is where the presence of the wild pig in Monterey County and, whether realistic or not, the desire to eradicate the species gets complicated. Gonzales acknowledges wild pigs are disruptive but he says pigs also play a role in preserving native habitats. He says, through pig hunting, they provide ranchers and landowners with a reliable source of income that finances their ability to take care of their property. This is true throughout the state, too. The Department of Fish and Wildlife department receives north of $1 million in some years in revenue collected through pig hunting tag fees.

“For some landowners and ranchers, wild pigs become a way they can maintain their property,” Gonzales says. “You need to put money into that land so you need a steady income. We don’t see [pig hunting] as a bad thing. Maintaining property is difficult and we wouldn’t want to see some of those natural lands succumb to invasive weeds because the property owner can’t afford to manage the invasive plant populations.

“Just like anything, it’s all within the eye of the beholder.”

DEEDY LOFTUS IS A LOCAL PIG HUNTING GUIDE AND OWNER OF BRYSON HESPERIA RESORT in Bradley, the business which provided Rapadas with his hunting experience. Loftus and Willoughby have business relationships with local ranch owners in the area who, for a cut, let them lead pig hunts on their property. Loftus says she and Willoughby take about 300 pigs per year over a land area that exceeds 100,000 acres. At between $800 and $1,050 per session – and not every session takes a pig – the presence of wild pigs provides a significant industry for landowner and guide and butcher alike. She says, on some ranches, wild pig hunting likely brings in more revenue than the cattle.

Loftus understands from personal experience the damage wild pigs can cause. Several years ago, a 200-pound boar charged her and broke her knee cap. She has friends who run vineyards with pig problems and is plugged into nearby farms. However, she doesn’t view local wild pig numbers as “out of control” and says hunters here actually work to help the population remain successful. In 2018, she even joined other outfitters and hunting guides in opposition to a state bill that would have allowed nighttime hunting. She says that could have obliterated the population, which was the point.

“There are times we have to protect the numbers,” Loftus says. “During a drought year like this, we pretty much support those pigs, we let them eat cattle hay because if they get too thin, they’ll stop breeding and we’ll lose them.”

There are two examples of successful wild pig eradication in California. At Pinnacles National Park, park managers concerned about wild pig damage built a pig-proof fence around a 22-square-mile area and spent three years trapping and hunting the nonnative animals until finally eradicating the population in 2006. The other example was a $5 million effort on the Channel Islands to restore the native habitat. From 2005 to 2006, the National Park Service and Nature Conservancy killed more than 5,000 pigs with the help of a trained sniper who methodically picked off the swine from a helicopter.

Barrett says the only data on California’s wild pig population is what he calls a “wag” – a wild-ass guess – but he’s confident eradication, at this point, is impossible. Gonzales agrees.

“Even if you had the political will for government to deem wild pigs so invasive and so problematic that we have to eradicate them, then you’d have to come up with some plan that would require all property owners to participate, or allow participation on their land, and that ain’t gonna happen,” Gonzales says.

“If you could get rid of pigs in California, then you should,” Barrett says. “But I’m more of a practical person and it’s impossible, so why worry about it?”

Back at Toro Park, Flores says wild pigs remain a top concern as more of the park’s turf gets torn up. In mid-August, his team trapped and killed six pigs. He says he is considering other options, and has looked into buying three dancing tube men­ – yes, the inflatable, moving characters seen outside of car dealerships – and placing them in the park at night as a deterrent.

If the pigs continue to wreak havoc, Flores says the county may have to move away from deterrents and traps and more toward an offensive strategy that could involve an active hunt through the park.

Search and Destroy

Jose Rapadas (left) celebrates his successful July 31 pig hunt in South County, next to his 270-pound wild boar. Meat processing facilities, such as Corralitos Market in Watsonville, receive wild-caught pig carcasses and turn them into products for the hunter, from sausage to pork shoulder and bacon. Hugo Huerta, head butcher at Corralitos, says the volume of wild boar coming in for processing lately has dropped.


Bringing Home Bacon

Where does the meat go after wild pigs are killed? For private hunters, they can bring the carcass to a butcher to process the meat for personal consumption. (California Department of Fish and Wildlife publications even offer recipe ideas, such as crockpot wild pork or wild boar and kraut casserole.)

When depredation permits are used, the meat cannot be sold or bartered, but it can be eaten for personal consumption or donated. “Generally, we try to find friends or family or use word of mouth to [find people to] give it to. So far, that’s been adequate,” says Jon Anthony, head ranger of Monterey County Parks.

Anthony wants any dead pig to be honored and tries to ensure it is used and not wasted. He says that decades ago, the carcasses of depredated pigs were given to soup kitchens or food banks; however, that practice has become less common due to food safety concerns.

Jeff Cann, a biologist with the Department of Fish and Wildlife, says what happens to depredated pig meat comes down to the specifics of the permit. In some cases, the state requires pig carcasses to be turned back over to the state to be donated. (Charitable organizations interested in receiving depredated pig meat can call 831-649-2870.)

If there are no recipients, the carcass is typically buried onsite.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Rapadas used an automatic rifle. He used a semi-automatic rifle.

Christopher Neely covers a mixed beat that includes the environment, water politics, and Monterey County's Board of Supervisors. He began at the Weekly in 2021 after five years on the City Hall beat in Austin, TX.

Recommended for you

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.