(BCN) — An online forum held Thursday looked at the growing problem of wild pigs in California and how to lessen the danger and damage they are bringing around the state. Up to 400,000 non-native wild pigs are believed to be in the state, with the animals having been found in 56 of its 58 counties, according to an opening presentation at the forum organized by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the state’s Fish and Game Commission.

The growing number of the pigs isn’t just a California problem — they were found in 544 counties nationwide 40 years ago, but are in 1,915 counties as of 2020, said Ari Cornman, wildlife advisor for the Fish and Game Commission. Their numbers have grown quickly because they reproduce quickly and are “incredibly intelligent,” Cornman said.

The animals are nocturnal, can find ways to elude control methods, and they also “eat just about anything and live in just about any habitat,” he said.

Matt Sharp Cheney, a resource management specialist with the Bay Area-based Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, called the wild pigs “biological rototills” since they use their powerful snout, tusks and hooves to dig up soil as they forage for food, damaging vineyards, other farmlands and wildlands in the process.

They are also known as a reservoir for a long list of diseases like tuberculosis, salmonella, influenza and have contributed to outbreaks of E. coli and other foodborne illnesses, according to Brandon Munk with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. Munk said African swine fever is another illness that has been reported elsewhere around the world and “has been knocking on our door” as a potential threat in the U.S.

State legislation attempting to take on the wild pig problem is awaiting the signature of Gov. Gavin Newsom. Senate Bill 856, introduced by state Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, would loosen regulations and lower hunting fees for killing the feral hogs — including allowing someone to kill an unlimited number of pigs and prohibiting someone from intentionally releasing a pig to live in the wild.

SB 856 gathered strange political bedfellows — the animal rights group Humane Society of the United States and various hunting groups both opposed the bill — but it passed with zero no votes in both the state Senate and Assembly and was sent for the governor’s signature in late August. Newsom has not yet signed it into law and has until Sept. 30 to do so.

Eric Sklar, a member of the state’s Fish and Game Commission, said he hopes the bill becomes law but said “It’s a complicated problem and the solutions are complicated.”

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Roger Baldwin, a professor at University of California, Davis specializing in human-wildlife conflict, said some other states don’t allow wild pig hunting at all, saying they found the amount of pigs grew and they popped up in new places because people were transporting the animals around for hunting opportunities.

Other states use methods banned in California, like in Texas where they use “aerial control,” in which crews go up in helicopters and shoot the wild pigs from above, said Dennis Orthmeyer, state director with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, Wildlife Services.

Orthmeyer said he had seen an instance of 2,600 wild pigs being removed from a Texas property in a week, but the practice of aerial control of a game mammal is banned in California. The state’s ongoing drought is also exacerbating the problem by causing the pigs to go into more urban areas to find water and food, according to Chris Lopez, a member of the Monterey County Board of Supervisors and of the Rural County Representatives of California.

“The drought is pushing the pigs out of the hills down toward human life,” Lopez said. “They’re more willing to interact with humans or at least get close.”

Human-wildlife interactions in the Bay Area involving wild pigs are highest in Santa Clara County, according to background materials included for Thursday’s meeting. Santa Clara County includes the area that is now the city of Morgan Hill, but was previously known in the 1800s as Ojo del Agua de la Coche, Spanish for “pig spring,” the city notes on its website.

Dana Page, natural resources program coordinator for Santa Clara County Parks, said their county and others try to use physical barriers to keep the wild pigs out of certain sensitive areas, but that some of the county’s biggest problems are with its campgrounds where people leave food that the animals can access so “the pigs have become acclimated to the food sources there.”

Sklar, the member of the state’s Fish and Game Commission, said the commission plans to revisit the topic of wild pigs at its meeting next month once there is clarity on whether Newsom will sign SB 856.

More information on wild pigs in California can be found here.

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