The Big Bad Pigs

San Diego tracking guru Barry Martin

I’ve been intrigued by wild hogs ever since reading a 2005 New Yorker article by Ian Frazier about the animals and their destructive habits. So when I heard that the San Diego Tracking Team and Western Tracking Institute would be holding a training session about the local feral-pig menace, I couldn’t resist attending.

Meadow torn up by the feral pigs' tusks

Held March 24 on a private ranch in Descanso (about 40 minutes east of San Diego just off Interstate 8), the session proved mesmerizing. It was led by Barry Martin, who founded the tracking team (and about whom I wrote a San Diego Reader cover story that ran in 2006). Barry explained that the San Diego trackers, working with the Nature Conservancy and several government and nonprofit agencies, have accepted a mission the likes of which has never been done before anywhere else in the country: namely to survey as much of the county as possible in an effort to pin down where the pigs are congregating. The aim will then be to use that information to wipe them out.
There’s plenty of incentive for doing so. Big swatches of the ranch where we met bore ample evidence of how brutally these animals can ravage the land – plowing
into it with their tusks in search of acorns, roots, and other porcine provender. Environmentalists are concerned that this activity may sabotage regeneration that has occurred since the big 2003 And 2007 wildfires. They also worry that the pigs may hurt
threatened and endangered species and spread disease.
Although someone at the training session mentioned hearing of a wild pig population that once existed around Lake Henshaw back in the 1960s, those animals apparently never spread, as has the current crop. Ed Zieralski, the UT San Diego reporter who first reported on the situation back in 2007, has written that a small herd of 30 to 40 Russian pigs were raised in pens on the Capitan Grande Indian
Reservation (next to the El Capitan Reservoir) and released around 2006 to
start a hog-hunting program like others that exist around the US. But the
population exploded, and by some estimates close to 1000 pigs now are ranging
as far north as Mt. Palomar, beyond Warner Springs in the east, and below I-8
to the south.
Martin stressed the urgency of containing those animals before they reach Riverside County in the north or Baja in the south. But none of the training session focused on killing and eating the animals. By all reports, the feral hogs can be quite delicious. Hunters already can get permits to shoot them. The problem is that
the animals are smart, and once they feel threatened, they become nocturnal and they stick to the most inaccessible reaches of the backcountry.

Pig scat

Hence the need for the tracking. In the recent training session, we found and studied the pigs’ droppings (studded with undigested acorn shells). We tried to memorize their tracks, and we looked for coarse hairs in a flattened spot on the ground where they may have been wallowing.
The track of the elusive feral pig

Most of us were so swept along with enthusiasm for the project that we volunteered to participate in the tracking outings. Those are supposed to continue until November. I hope to be among them on at least some occasions.

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