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Wild pigs cause millions in damages in California. But hunting them could become easier

The hunter peered through the scope of his .300 Winchester Magnum rifle. His guide knelt beside him on a steep hillside on the eastern slope of California's Central Coast range.

Approximately 250 yards across the canyon, a group of wild hogs — some black as ink, others blonde with brown spots and nearly impossible to spot in the dry grass — meandered through the brush. They were on their way to a farmer's barley crop where they would feed in the approaching darkness.

"Take your time. Don't miss," said Sam McGuire, the owner of SMC Guide Service.

Steve Fournier's rifle roared in the fading light. A miss. He worked the bolt, chambered another round and fired. A squeal echoed through the canyon, and a spotted blonde sow slid down the hillside into a thicket of brush.

Minutes later, Fournier and McGuire stood over the sow's corpse. They bumped fists in celebration, before dragging the hog to a place where it would be gutted and skinned.

McGuire typically charges clients $800 for a two-day pig hunting excursion. For Fournier, a 63-year-old accountant from Aptos, the guide fee is money well spent. He gets to hunt on a private ranch teeming with wild pigs, and will head home with a few dozen pounds of tasty free-range, organic pork for his freezer.

This kind of pay-to-play arrangement is the norm for most hunters hoping to bag a wild hog in California. The nonnative feral pigs that have invaded 56 of California's 58 counties live almost entirely on private agricultural land. Hunters hoping to shoot one usually have to pay a guide who leases property from a landowner.

It can be a double-bonus business for the landowner. He or she receives revenue while hunters take out animals that root up fields and vineyards, destroy fencing and compete with cattle and sheep for forage.

"There's a lot of frustration with having pigs around," said Noelle Cremers, a lobbyist for the California Farm Bureau Federation. "On the other hand, (farmers) see an opportunity: 'OK, (pigs) are causing me all this damage, so I should be able to capitalize on that.'"

But California's farmers say recreational hunting alone isn't solving their wild pig problem. They're pushing this summer for legislation that would allow them to exterminate more feral pigs on their properties with fewer regulations enforced by the state's game wardens.

Cremers is advocating for Assembly Bill 2805, authored by Assemblyman Frank Bigelow, R-Madera, which would change the status of California’s wild pigs from a game species regulated similar to deer, elk and bear to a new category.

The change would allow farmers to kill pigs without a hunting license or what's known as "depredation permits" — what the state's wildlife agency normally issues when game animals damage property.

Bigelow's bill "helps streamline the process to make sure it's easier to try to deal with this nuisance," said Tyler Blagg, whose family ranches several thousand acres in Nevada County on land that he says is overrun with feral hogs. Due to safety and other concerns, Blagg's family does not allow recreational hunters on their lands.

Farmers like Blagg long have chafed at needing special permission from the state to kill a nonnative species they consider a pest, and they say recreational hunting alone does little to decrease the numbers.

California’s hunters report killing fewer than 5,000 wild pigs each year, a fraction of the state's feral hog population, estimated at between 200,000 and 400,000. California has the fourth largest population of wild pigs in the country behind Texas, Florida and Georgia.

Meanwhile, feral pigs cause California's farmers and ranchers around $2 million in damage annually, according to an analysis by the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee.

Invasive species

One might expect a bill that makes it easier to kill more animals would be opposed by the state's powerful animal-rights and environmental groups. But AB 2805 breezed through the Assembly this spring with no opposition from them. It heads to the Senate Tuesday.

According to an analysis by the water and wildlife committee, the nonnative pigs cause at least $4 million in ecological damage each year, so decreasing their numbers would be beneficial to the state's environment and native wildlife.

The legislation also includes certain provisions that animal welfare and environmental groups support. The bill prohibits ranchers from using poison bait to kill pigs — a practice that could harm other animals.

AB 2805 also places a ban on the controversial practice of hunting pigs in fenced preserves. California has a few of these "high-fence" hunting ranches scattered around the state. High-fence hunting is controversial even among hunters; many question the ethics of paying to shoot animals unable to escape confinement. Supporters of the practice note that most preserves tend to range from several hundred acres to several thousand, large enough for a "fair chase" hunting experience.

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Hunting guide Sam McGuire uses binoculars to "glass" for wild pigs on the hills of San Benito County on June 16, 2018, while his terrier, Emma, waits for action. Ryan Sabalow

The bill also makes it cheaper to hunt wild pigs in California.

Currently, licensed hunters can hunt pigs year round and kill as many as they want, but they are required to buy a $22.49 kill permit for each pig. AB 2805 would change the permit requirement to a single flat $15 annual pig-hunting fee. The bill also encourages landowners to allow more hunters onto their properties by working with hunter-access programs managed by the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Some hunting groups, including Safari Club International, however, oppose the bill.

Opponents fear that replacing pig-kill permits with an annual hunting fee would result in less money for state hunting and habitat programs. The programs, managed by the Department of Fish And Wildlife, face a potential $400,000 loss in revenue if the permit fees change, according to an analysis by the Assembly Appropriations Committee. The bill's sponsors say they're considering raising the annual fee to more than $15 to offset those losses.

Opponents also don't want the state to ban high-fence pig hunting because they say it sets a precedent that animal-rights activists will exploit for future hunting bans.

"High-fence hunting is the low-hanging fruit here," said Charles Whitwam, a pig hunting guide from Pacifica who doesn't do business on high-fence properties but believes his fellow hunters should have the option. "What's next? The next low-hanging fruit is people who hunt with dogs. After that, it's falconry. ... Next thing, it's archery."

McGuire, owner of SMC Guide Service, is one of the hunters who doesn't see anything particularly troubling about the bill.

McGuire, 31, once worked as a guide on a nearby high-fence hog-hunting preserve. But he said it wasn't for him.

Instead, he prefers the elusive, free-ranging swine he targets on the private lands he leases near the town of King City, not far from the border of Monterey and San Benito counties, where wild hogs have a long history.

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Sam McGuire, a wild pig hunting guide from Lockwood, enters his client's hunting license information into his log book on June 16, 2018. Looking on are Emma, McGuire's terrier, and his client, John Locatelli. A bill in the legislature would allow hunters to pay a flat annual fee to hunt pigs instead of buying a kill permit for each animal. Ryan Sabalow

In the 1700s, Spanish settlers' farm pigs first escaped into the wild. In the 1920s, a Monterey County landowner released some European boars into the hills. The European pig subspecies have long snouts, sharp, protruding tusks and the "razorback" look that trophy hunters find appealing.

After a century of interbreeding, California's wild hogs now share features from both varieties of pigs. Where McGuire hunts, a hog could look as if it stepped out of a 4-H kid's pen at the county fair, or it could sport a deep brown coat, a bristly ridge-back and three-inch tusks.

McGuire said there is no shortage of wild pigs or people looking to hunt them. He said he's booked throughout the year and regularly has to turn away potential clients.

While hunting, McGuire and his clients often spend hours scanning hillsides with binoculars, hoping to spot pigs moving through the underbrush or resting under oak trees. Feral hogs blend in with the landscape remarkably well. A single snout or a razorback hump sticking out from behind a bush might be the only giveaway that a dozen pigs are hunkered down together.

After McGuire and his clients spot their quarry, they silently stalk it, looking to get into position for a shot. Hogs have good hearing, but it's their sense of smell that can expose the hunters. Surprisingly agile and fast, wild hogs can vanish in an instant in the brushy hillsides at the first whiff of a human.

McGuire said nothing in AB 2805 is going to detract from his clients' experiences. If anything, a single flat fee to hunt pigs would make things easier for them. He also doesn't see ranchers killing enough hogs under the proposed new rules to eliminate their business with him and his fellow guides.

"I don't see how this hurts me at all," he said.

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Steve Fournier, a hunter from Aptos, scans for wild pigs on June 16, 2018, in the hills of San Benito County while his hunting guide, Sam McGuire, uses binoculars to look for hogs. Ryan Sabalow

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow