SAN FRANCISCO — You're walking through a grassy woodland at twilight near Stinson Beach a few miles to the north of here. To the left is the brillance of a Pacific sunset. To the right are fields of dainty wildflowers turning from gold to purple in the fading light. And dead ahead is a big, hairy hog, grunting through the stillness, his long snout rooting up grass and flowers like a plow run amok.
"Two hundred acres look like they've been rototilled," noted an exasperated Golden Gate National Recreation Area ecologist, Terri Thomas .
The sight of California parkland being devoured by hogs making, well, pigs of themselves has become all too common in Marin County and elsewhere in California. Nomadic pigs have created a kind of cloven-footed demolition derby on flora and fauna in 32 of the state's 58 counties.
Ten Trapped and Killed
It has reached the point where war has quietly been declared on the pillaging porkers in the rolling green hills above the Marin coast.
In a nine-day span ending Thursday, 10 of the foraging, feral pigs were trapped, killed and sent to the butcher. More are expected to follow.
"If you knew these pigs, you'd know that's really good," Thomas said.
California's battle against wild pigs--no one has counted them, but they're believed to number in the hundreds--also is being waged, in varying degrees of intensity, in several other parts of the state.
Special "depredation" permits have been issued by the Department of Fish and Game to landowners and professional hunters to kill the pigs from Tehama County to Santa Barbara County, where the animals have rooted their way through garbanzo bean fields and damaged other crops, according to Terry Mansfield, a Department of Fish and Game wildlife supervisor.
In Sonoma County, pigs have dug extra holes in a golf course near Annadel State Park. Several automobiles have been damaged around the state when they ran into pigs--some as large as 300 pounds--waddling down the road.
Potential for Erosion
Skip Schwartz, manager of the Audubon Canyon Ranch nature reserve in Marin County, said the full damage to foraged areas will not be known until winter rains hit the chewed-up soil that the pigs have laid open to erosion. Schwartz said the animals have disturbed the soil's chemistry and disrupted delicate relationships between fungus and insects and plants and weeds.
"We're worried about what's happening to land and life," Schwartz said.
So odious have the pigs become--tearing up creek banks and eating frogs, birds and even lambs--that not even animal lovers are squawking about the escalated battle.
"We know there is a problem that has to be controlled," said Judy Carroll of the Marin County Humane Society. "We're just concerned that it not be open season on the pigs and that they be killed humanely."
It is not as if the whole world is ganging up on the unsightly animals. Some landowners see pigs as money-on-the-hoof, luring hunters onto their property for a fee, which is sometimes sizable.
As far as some hunters are concerned, the more pigs the merrier. Most thrill to bagging the "wild boars," even though technically they may merely be shooting once-domesticated pigs. Pig hunting is one of the fastest-growing--and most lucrative for landowners--game sports in California, according to Schwartz.
Landowners and hunters have gone so far as to illegally transport the beasts from one locale to another in order to set up new hunting grounds, according to Reginald Barrett, a wildlife expert at UC Berkeley. If not properly managed, the pigs then roam their way into public parklands, golf courses and even family backyards, destroying fragile ecosystems as they go. Along with shooting the stubborn rooters, another way of steming their tide would be more vigorous enforcement by Department of Fish and Game wardens of laws prohibiting the transport of pigs.
"Of course, there are very few wardens and a lot of problems, and these pigs are hard things to pin down," Barrett said, noting that before the culprits can be cited, they must be caught in the act of releasing the pigs. "If it's in a cage in a truck, it's still a domestic pig."
'Increasing in Range'
"Pigs have been increasing in range and in numbers in this state for 20 years, and they'll pretty much continue that way until they occupy most of the oak and chaparral lowlands of California," Barrett said.
According to Thomas, most of the pigs are descendants of animals that escaped from farms, but some were "pignaped" to be used as hunting stock.
Most of the nomad pigs resemble garden-variety barnyard animals, except they are slimmer and faster. Some, however, have developed pointed ears, straight tails and short tusks after several years in the wild.