After four years of intense planning, the controversial effort to eradicate up to 4,000 destructive wild pigs on Santa Cruz Island has officially begun.
Lines of fencing are being thrown up across the rugged island, beginning the slow encirclement of the swine. Once the pigs are trapped inside the fences, they will be stalked and shot by contract hunters.
"I am just thrilled to have it underway," said Lynn Lozier, Santa Cruz Island project director for the Nature Conservancy. "This is the first tangible piece of restoring the island to its original condition. The presence of the pigs [is] central to all the problems we face on the island."
The $2.1-million fencing operation, which began last month, is scheduled to take five to seven years to complete. The island will be divided into five zones, each about 15,000 acres. Every year, a new zone will be fenced off and hunted until the pigs within it are gone.
"This technique has been used successfully all over the world," said Erik Aschehoug, a Nature Conservancy biologist. The first zone should be fenced by December, and hunting will begin in late spring, he said.
Biologists and wildlife officials say the pigs are the biggest impediment to the massive ecological restoration effort being conducted on the island.
The pigs dig deep holes, strip bark from rare trees and uproot Chumash artifacts. Worse, they attract non-native golden eagles, which dine on feral piglets and also have a taste for the endangered island fox. The eagles nearly ate the foxes into extinction before most of the foxes were rounded up and put in kennels, where they will remain until the eagles are gone.
"To some extent we have been treating the symptoms," Lozier said. "We can continue to do that, to keep the island from getting sicker. But this project is exciting because we are moving toward a more self-sustaining balance on the island."
At 90 square miles, Santa Cruz is the largest of the eight Channel Islands. The Nature Conservancy, which owns about 75% of the island, and Channel Islands National Park, which owns the rest, are cooperating on the pig project. The first fences are going up on Nature Conservancy land.
The pigs, which weigh up to 150 pounds and are armed with sharp tusks, were brought to the island in the 1850s by a Santa Barbara farmer. After escaping, they survived largely by digging up and eating fennel bulbs.
From 1990 to 1993, the park service killed about 1,100 wild pigs on Santa Rosa Island, also part of Channel Islands National Park. A similar anti-swine effort is underway on Santa Catalina Island, which put up 17 miles of pig-proof fencing in 1999. Biologists there expect the pigs to be gone within two years. In the Galapagos Islands off Ecuador, biologists are also trying to get rid of pigs to save the native flora and fauna.
But the porcine marauders have their defenders.
"We are not arguing that they don't need to do something about the pigs, we are arguing with their methods," said Stephanie Boyles, wildlife biologist with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "The animals are totally innocent here. There is no reason their numbers can't be brought down in a more humane and progressive way. The park service is rushing this.''
PETA has suggested shooting the pigs with contraceptive darts to eradicate them over time. The group also proposed trapping and euthanizing them. "Even a shot in the head is better than what they have planned," Boyles said. "It will be a terrifying experience for the animals. They have demonized these animals. No animal is evil. They are making do with what they have on an island they can't leave."
Aschehoug said rounding up thousands of pigs and administering contraceptives would be nearly impossible. As for euthanasia, he said, capturing all the pigs and giving them injections would be more stressful for them than shooting.
"We are not interested in killing pigs but in restoring an island," he said. "Unfortunately, the pigs are in the way."