Wild Pig Hunting with Oak Stone Outfitters

A rush to curb wild pig prevalence in California leaves conflicting groups speculating about the animal’s future.

Camped on the undulating hills of Bradley, professional hunter Chad Wiebe and his outfitting group raced against the clock.

Clad in earth tones and armed with monoculars, handheld radios, and guns, they were on a quest for feral pigs.

It took all afternoon on Dec. 20. Wiebe drove roughly an hour into the southern Monterey County backcountry from Oak Stone Outfitters, which he owns and operates. Every so often, he’d pause, and scope out the olive-green landscape for pigs while the others quietly motored behind his car.

Coyotes, cows, and deer quickly came into view. But pigs—famously abundant on the Central Coast—were ironically hard to find. Bradley’s farmlands were low on ripe agricultural crops over the winter. That produce is usually a prime food source for the pigs. Without that bounty, wild pig presence in the area was scant during the day.

“Their movements are much more random now,” Wiebe said. “Their hearing is OK, their smell is high, but their weakness is sight.”

As the afternoon drew close to evening, Wiebe spotted a wild pig in a thicket at the base of the valley. He quietly alerted Oak Stone hunters Preston Doherty and Hunter Conley and client Fernando Casillas over the radio. Wiebe stayed back to monitor the pig’s movements while Doherty, Conley, and Casillas moved ahead to take aim, shoot, and harvest. With the light of day beginning to darken, the likelihood of pigs coming out to feed was higher. But a deadline hurtled toward them.

By California law, hunting and shooting time for big game stops half an hour after sunset. Wiebe scanned his phone and muttered into the radio.

Casillas propped his gun and steadied his aim. Stillness and silence permeated the air. After a tense few minutes, Wiebe called time. Casillas had to pack up.

“You don’t want to take a shot if you’re not confident. No shot is better than a bad shot,” Wiebe explained.

The pig melted into the darkness blanketing the valley.

“Tonight, the pig won and we lost, and it has to be that way, otherwise there’d be no wildlife left,” he said. “We got a nice hike in, anyway.”

While that winter day’s hunt bore no pigs, the outcomes are different in the summer. According to Wiebe, the warmth draws them out in hordes and hunters go home with a pig irrespective of their field experience. It’s a testament to their prevalence in San Luis Obispo and Monterey counties.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife doesn’t track the number of wild pigs in the state but estimates it to be around 400,000. They exist in 56 of 58 counties, but their number in SLO County is unknown. Fish and Wildlife views feral pigs as an invasive or exotic species, meaning that they’re an entity that’s not supposed to naturally exist in California.

Though harvested by hunters year-round, wild pigs often aggravate the agricultural industry and resident farmers to such an extent that they attracted political scrutiny.

Humans and wild pigs interact so frequently that Sen. Bill Dodd (D-Napa) called the animal an invasive species, authoring a Senate bill to control their growth in the state and limit their damage to private property and agriculture. The bill eases wild pig hunting restrictions and will allow people to harvest more of them than ever before. But the potential impacts of that bill also have land managers and hunters concerned about its consequences.

“Do we manage the pigs or do we eradicate them? That’s the big question,” Wiebe said.

Sniffing out roots

The wild pig’s origin in California is contested. One of the biggest theories is that media heavyweight William Randolph Hearst shipped them to Hearst Castle for his exotic zoo and hunting program from where they were slowly released over time.

Matt Gil, a lieutenant officer representing SLO and south Monterey counties for Fish and Wildlife, said that theory has the most credibility. Gil said another piece of wild pig lore states that domestic pigs were introduced as livestock and soon became wild after Spanish and Russian settlers brought them to California in the 1700s.

“They got out, and with the William Randolph Hearst pigs that were Eurasian boars, they crossbred and that’s how you get feral pigs,” Gil said.

Razorbacked and amply covered in coarse, long hair, California wild pigs bear little resemblance to the pink, short-haired, floppy-eared domestic variety. They come in several colors and patterns too; white, black, blond, and even spotted. Fully grown wild sows weigh between 150 to 175 pounds on average, while their male counterparts grow to roughly 200 pounds.

“Most of the trophy hunters want something like a pure Eurasian black boar with big tusks on it and long hair,” Gil said.

But while feral and domesticated pigs look physically different, they’re almost identical genetically. Todd Tognazzini, a retired Fish and Wildlife captain who used to oversee five counties spanning Santa Clara to SLO, said they share genus and species types.

“Sus scrofa is the genus and species of both,” Tognazzini said. “Sus scrofa domestica is the domestic pig, and sus scrofa scrofa is the wild pig. They’re the same exact animal that readily crossbred.”

He added that tusking is another practice that superficially separates the two. Male domestic pigs are castrated for meat production and have their tusks clipped. However, because teeth on wild pigs are left unchecked, the males grow to have large tusks within a generation.

Tognazzini provided another take on the explosion of wild pigs in California, and it’s one that led to a misconception.

“There is an anomaly of people saying ‘European wild boar,’” he said. “We don’t have any true European wild boars in California. We have pigs that were domesticated that became feral like we have a feral cat population and feral pigeons that fly around.”

He referred to Rancho San Carlos, just south of the Carmel Valley, where European wild boars were introduced into the already-existing wild pig population.

“While there is data that shows the San Carlos ranch brought in a dozen or so European wild boar to increase the wildness of the wild pig, the reality is, when you look at the pig population, even if it were 100 boars that were brought in, the genetics was never changed much,” Tognazzini said.

It’s believed that at the turn of the last century, wild pigs were raised like cattle in large pastures with barbed wire fencing. Some would escape, and over time, a large pig population formed in California. In a good year, a wild pig can produce 10 piglets that are successfully raised into adulthood, according to Tognazzini. That high reproductive capability contributed to a quick buildup of pigs, and its long-lasting effects are familiar to both him and Gil.

“Monterey County seems to be the biggest area for wild pigs, and San Luis Obispo is right up there with it,” Gil said. “I would say south Monterey County and San Luis Obispo produce the most pig harvests in the state of California.”

Laying down the law

It’s perennially pig-hunting season in California. It begins July 1 and ends on June 30 of the following year, with prime pig hunting months in the springtime.

In 2021, Fish and Wildlife documented at least 525 reported pig tags being used in SLO County. These are paper slips that hunters use to mark a felled pig as soon as possible. One pig tag costs $25, and until 2024, hunters need a new one with every successfully hunted pig.

A depredation permit also allows trapping and euthanizing pigs after dark.

“Pigs are nocturnal animals. So, we will allow them to be depredated at night,” he said. “We don’t allow that at night with a hunting permit.”


Price of greed

Lawbreakers still find their way around the rules.

“Our biggest big game poaching animal is wild pigs, more so toward the border of south Monterey County and San Luis Obispo County,” Gil said.

Poaching wild pigs may be more trouble than they’re worth. At $25, it’s the cheapest big game tag available. Deer, bear, elk, and big-horn sheep tags cost roughly $30, $50, and a couple of hundred dollars, respectively. Once caught, Fish and Wildlife officers confiscate a poacher’s kill, firearms, and hunting equipment. They’re then subject to court appearances, fines, and even imprisonment in some cases. Gil said that poachers’ preferred method of finding their targets is using a technique called spotlighting.

“So, they come up, start spotlighting using their headlights or flashlights, look for pigs on the side of the road and they’ll shoot them,” he said. “A lot of the time people will shoot too many pigs because they don’t have tags for them.”

Fish and Wildlife try to identify poachers by flying planes at night. Units positioned around SLO County and beyond pass through dark skies on the lookout for people driving erratically, unusually slowly, or simply forming ‘S’ shapes on a straight road. Gil said that poaching mostly occurs from winter to early summer, when pigs huddle on the sides of roads to eat food.

Confiscated poached pigs don’t go to waste. If they were shot using non-lead ammunition, they’re donated to conservation ambassador Zoo to You in Paso Robles to feed carnivores, to nonprofits, or even to Cal Poly for scientific study.

Such collaboration underscores the importance of hunting as part of wildlife conservation efforts. It’s something retired Fish and Wildlife Capt. Tognazzini wants more people to be aware of.

Future of pigs

Tognazzini has been hunting since he was 12 years old. While wild pig isn’t his first choice of big game, he still appreciates the animal for its meat. A large pig weighing roughly 150 pounds can last him all year, and he enjoys sharing that bounty with friends and family.

“Most of what we eat is game off the land or fish off our local fisheries. It’s healthier for you, and you take care of it every step of the way,” Tognazzini said. “You can use so much of an animal, and revere the animal and understand the renewability of wildlife resources.”

Every winter quarter, Tognazzini is a part-time lecturer at Cal Poly. This year, he’s teaching a natural resources law enforcement class that draws from his more than 40-year-long career with Fish and Wildlife. He stressed the importance of hunter safety, ethics, and wildlife management.

“Some people have really poor opinions about hunting. They don’t realize that of the handful of species that we do hunt, there are thousands of species that we’re not allowed to hunt,” Tognazzini said. “The money from the conservation of hunting has provided habitat and access for everyone. Hunters have kind of paved the way.”

He added that through the Pittman-Robertson Act of 1937, purchasing hunting equipment comes with a tax that funds hunter safety programs and firearms education courses.

Tognazzini said he’s apprehensive about the new Senate bill.

“Throughout my career, there were numerous attempts to deregulate wild pigs,” he said. “Now, you have the ability to get pigs without pig tags. That’s kind of scary to me. Because of the economic interest in them, many of the ranchers are making money to keep the ranches intact with wild pig hunting.”

Tognazzini said that more lenient regulation could result in more poaching as people try to unlawfully harvest pigs on private properties belonging to ranchers trying to make a living.

“It’s already tough enough to keep people from killing pigs in the middle of night. There might be an enforcement issue because we have so much open land and pigs are highly nocturnal,” he said. “The effect would be astronomical if you completely deregulate it.”

SB 856 also forbids the intentional release of pigs back into the wild. But it’s a feature that’s left hunters engaged in land management scratching their heads. Wiebe, the owner of Oak Stone Outfitters, said that to the best of their ability, hunters usually target male pigs and avoid the sows.

“We try not to take the mothers, the females. We want to be able to manage the herd successfully. We don’t want to eradicate them from our areas. We enjoy eating them and utilizing them,” Wiebe said.

On average, Oak Stone Outfitters’ clients harvest 300 pigs a year. It’s a small percentage of the total number of wild boars in the county. Wiebe believes the new law will help make somewhat of a dent in the pig population on public lands but doesn’t think it would affect the animals on private grounds.

“There are a lot of questions about this bill. Mostly, it’s about wanton waste. If people do shoot pigs, they have to utilize all of it,” Wiebe said. “We don’t want to see pigs being shot senselessly. I’d say that’s what myself, and most people, would have an issue with.”

But Sen. Dodd, who spearheaded SB 856, doesn’t think waste will be an issue.

“We could be concerned about the problems that could occur and never address this problem,” he said.

He added that in the eight years he’s been in the Legislature, most bills aimed at curbing wild pig numbers usually didn’t make it out of committee.

“I came up with a resolution, and we may need to go further, down the line, but we felt like this was a place to start decreasing the numbers of wild pigs that are doing incredible environmental damage to our water courses and streams, in not only rural communities but also suburban areas where you have soccer fields,” Dodd said. “It’s like a plow came in and plowed it overnight.”

Further, Dodd added that the rate of new pig births is far higher than the number harvested by hunters. They’re reproducing too quickly for humans to keep up with. He said he even considered the possibility of lifting the ban on night hunting but decided against it because Fish and Wildlife pushed back.

“A lot of pig hunters are concerned that they’ll be an over-take of pigs so their hunts will not be as successful. That’s not a concern for today,” Dodd said. “Perhaps in 10 or 15 years, but I would suggest that they take anything and everything while they can.”

He admitted that it’s too early to understand the full effects of the bill, and trying to appease all the stakeholders like hunters, ranchers, environmentalists, and animal rights advocates is a Herculean effort. In fact, some groups were upset that they had to wait until 2023 for SB 856 to take effect.

“Writing legislation is like making sausage. It’s not pretty but you do what you got to do to get meaningful legislation,” he said. “That means compromise. I would have liked to see it enacted earlier, but time will tell.”

Dodd made his choice about whether to wipe out pigs or simply slow their growth. Wild pigs in California, he said, is an “out of control” problem.

“The goal of the bill, short-term, is to eradicate knowing full well that the eradication of wild pigs is an impossible task,” he said.

Tognazzini agrees that it’s impossible, which spotlights the future for both pigs and those who hunt them in California.

“I think there will always be pigs around,” he said. “There’s no way you’re going to extirpate them.”

The Channel Islands of California is the only place where wild pigs were successfully eradicated, according to Tognazzini.

“I worked years ago as a Park Service ranger out there,” he said. “On the Channel Islands, they spent millions of dollars on helicopters and shot them with shotguns in a known location where they had no place to go.”

Wild pigs may have European roots, but now they’re California bred. On the Central Coast, and in the rest of the state, wild pigs are always going to be a part of the environment, according to Tognazzini. Looking ahead, he’s worried about the impact deregulation might have on harvesting pigs.

“People have a perception that deregulation will reduce depredation issues. It won’t, because people don’t want just anybody on their property killing wild pigs,” he said. “Can you trust the safety of those individuals? If you kick it open, it would be a nightmare.”