The only sign of life in Julian at 5:00 a.m. this April morning are men in white paper toques rolling out pie dough at the bright-lighted Julian Bakery. It’s a deep black morning when I meet Marc, a hunter who’s agreed to lead me by starlight to a semisecret spot, down several ravines in the Cleveland National Forest. There we’ll track and surprise and he’ll shoot, if he’s lucky, San Diego’s newest and most elusive game animal, the Russian boar.
Five miles southwest of town, driving into the headlighted darkness, we stop at an access point, a chain barring our entrance. Marc leaves his Dodge Durango running, and we talk in the red glow of his taillights. Of the few admonitions he offers up — the 40-year-old French-Canadian and 9-year Julian resident prefers I not use his last name — is this: “If you don’t mind, don’t say where we are. If we get a pig today, tomorrow there’ll be 50 people from PETA and 200 hunters converging on this spot.” Though I can’t see the playful tease in his eyes, I get the seriousness in his voice — some things are worth keeping secret. Especially to hard-core hunters.
Out of my view, Marc puts on his hunter’s clothing, head-to-toe camouflage — boots, pants, and shirt, and “nothing on underneath,” he says. He bundles his unruly, wiry long hair under a face mask and ball cap. It’s a striking look — a sort of woodsy terrorist. He notes that the face mask, as well as the entire outfit, suppresses human body odor, which pigs, whose eyesight is lousy but whose nose is first-rate, can detect hundreds of yards away. They will smell us — that is, me — before they see us.
Before we step over the chain, Marc unlocks from its fiberglass case a Smith & Wesson i-Bolt .30-06 hunting rifle with scope and shoulder strap. He says he can hit a game animal 500 yards away — “precisely.” (Later, he loads the magazine with three copper bullets.) The last piece of gear he totes is a small folding seat, with a carrier slot underneath for a self-filtering water bottle that he fills from the creek. “I drink of streams,” he says proudly.
A few days back, Marc phoned the California Department of Fish and Game and requested a good spot on public land where we might encounter pig. He was told that groups of 20 to 30 feral pigs had been spotted in the backcountry of the Cleveland National Forest, south of Julian and east of Ramona, in the backcountry canyons of the San Diego River.
Since when have wild boars been in San Diego County?
In 2006, a tribal person (most everyone I spoke with for this story knew the person’s name but wouldn’t repeat it) let loose a small herd of Russian boars on the Capitan Grande Indian Reservation. The plan (a generous descriptor) was to start a pig-hunting program on Indian land. For many reasons, the release was not authorized by Fish and Game officials.
First, the state lacks jurisdiction over tribes. Second, hogs reproduce rapidly once they find a habitat that suits them. This is a problem because the animals don’t observe borders between public and tribal areas, which in the county’s backcountry are vast and complicated. A map of the area shows all sorts of zigzagging boundaries between Indian, private, and public land. Pigs rarely stay in one place, wandering and rooting where they please — most often in protected or less-populated areas, a long, safe distance from hunters.
In four years, that herd, estimated at 20 to 30, has grown to between 200 and 400 today. Do the math: four doublings in four years. The pigs have been spotted throughout the backcountry: in Alpine, Cuyamaca, Ramona, east of Poway, and near the headwaters of the San Luis Rey River in the western foothills of Palomar Mountain. Recently, boars have been seen crossing the road near Dudley’s Bakery in Santa Ysabel and along the Sunrise Highway in the Laguna Mountains. The pigs’ range extends more than 30 miles from their release point on the north side of El Capitan Reservoir all the way to Pala Indian Reservation.
Feral hogs are destructive to ranchland and native plants, they compete for resources with deer and other game, and as noted, they proliferate like rabbits. Their unchecked propagation has stirred the U.S. Forest Service and California Fish and Game to direct hunters to access points where pigs can be “harvested” (the kindly term) on public land. Our miserly rainfall will do some of the weeding. But pigs are supremely adaptive. What’s more, they are “naturally reclusive,” says Marc. Pigs in the right habitat can grow to the tens of thousands: during the 1990s, more than 30,000 pigs were shot in California alone. Accurate state and national estimates are hard to come by. Some boar watchers say there are three million pigs in Texas and one million in Florida. Others put the U.S. total between two and six million.
Marc has hunted pigs at Fort Hunter Liggett Army base, near King City, in southern Monterey County. In two years, he’s hunted at Liggett some 20 times and had a chance at a pig only once. “I had five seconds,” he recalls as we cross a field and head toward a ravine. The pig came out of and ran back into the brush. Marc shot and missed. People who object to hunts think that the animals are flushed out toward certain deaths. On the contrary, Marc says. His lone chance is proof of how hard it is to bag a pig.
Pigs Are Extremely Intelligent, Far More Than We Imagine
Such odds make our seeing, let alone shooting, a pig highly improbable. Pigs, Marc says, are “100 percent nocturnal.” That’s why we’re here in the dark. As we approach, they are bedding down in the thickest thickets they can find, typically near a stream. The best we can hope for is to catch a sow and her young emerging for a predawn drink in the creek or a solitary boar, sleepless and on the roam.