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Is it possible to keep wild pigs off the roads?

By CHRIS COUNTS

Published: April 3, 2009

HOME TO a thriving population of wild pigs, Monterey County is a veritable hog heaven. But after a jury awarded an intoxicated Monterey Peninsula man more than $8 million last week as compensation for injuries he suffered after crashing his motorcycle into a wild pig on Highway 1 in 2003, land managers and government officials will no doubt be seeking ways to avert a similar case of hog hell. But is it even feasible to stop wild pigs from crossing roads?

Nobody is quite sure how many wild pigs live in Monterey County, but there’s one thing for sure: They’re not an endangered species.

“There are thousands of pigs in Carmel Valley,” reported Mark Stromberg, manager of the Hastings Reserve, a biological field station for University of California students. “They cross Carmel Valley Road every night. I’ve seen six or eight cross at a time. They cross the road as frequently as deer do.”

Covered with rugged terrain, dense vegetation and plenty of farms and gardens, the landscape of Monterey County is ideal for wild pigs.

In the 1920s, Russian boars were brought to Carmel Valley for hunting purposes, only a few miles from the site of the motorcycle crash. The boars bred with escaped domestic pigs, creating the pesky beasts that populate the county and wreak havoc on just about any agricultural endeavor.

Last week’s $8.6 million award sends a clear message to government agencies that they can be held responsible when a wild animal enters a roadway. But keeping them off the state’s highways and county’s roads could be an insurmountable problem, according to Reg Barrett, a wildlife management professor for the University of California at Berkeley and a noted pig expert who testified at the trial.

“They’re willing to go wherever they need to go to find food,” Barrett explained. “If food runs out, they’ll travel 100 miles if they have to.”

And not only are wild pigs commonly crossing highways in search of food, sometimes they are simply trying to get to the road, where animals killed by cars offer up an easy meal. Barrett confirmed wild pigs will eat carrion.

Given their natural persistence, intelligence and appetite, it’s clear there are only two possible ways to keep wild pigs off of roads: building fences or killing them.

Barrett said fences have kept pigs out of sensitive environmental habitats — such as Pinnacles National Monument — but such enclosures have only proved successful on a small scale. Fencing an area larger than 5,000 acres is probably not feasible, he said. And Monterey County has hundreds of thousands of acres of wild pig habitat.

Not only is fencing very expensive, but it also requires constant maintenance as wild pigs and other animals constantly seek ways to get around or through fencing.

Building fences along roads could create other problems. Many animals depend on migration as food sources shift throughout the seasons.

“If they are going to fence out pigs, they’ll have to fence out badgers, deer, foxes and everything else,” Stromberg warned. “And once you divide up a population, they’re more likely to go extinct.”

If fencing is not feasible, than what about killing them? Animal rights activists would object to such a harsh solution, but land managers and park officials would likely support it.

“The pigs are pests,” said Stromberg, summing up the feelings of many who deal with them on a regular basis. “They’re a domestic animal that got loose.”

But would it be possible to eradicate all the wild pigs in California? Barrett noted that the animals produce such prolific and frequent litters that more than 70 percent of the total wild pig population would need to be exterminated every year just to diminish the population.

Given that wild pigs thrive in places like Big Sur and Upper Carmel Valley, where uneven terrain and thick brush make their habitat virtually impassable to humans, it’s unlikely wild pigs will be extinguished from Monterey County any time soon.

“It would be very difficult,” said Barrett. “It would take the U.S. Army and then some.”