Originally brought to the US by explorers in the sixteenth century, wild pigs have established themselves as a substantial presence in our ecosystems across the country. There have been tremendous efforts on both private and public land to trap and eradicate them due to their impact on farmers and grasslands. However, the geography of North America and our mixed opinions on management render their eradication nearly impossible. To some, wild hogs are a direct threat to their livelihood. To others, they are a non-native nuisance that destroys fragile native habitat. And to few, they are a regenerative food source, a missing link in our ecosystems, and a species to make a living on by way of trapping and hunting.
When I first started hunting I was living in northern California. I’d spent years working closely with ecologists and native communities in the area, figuring out how to restore traditional processes in the ecosystem and manage the landscape. Pigs were a hot topic amongst biologists and land managers for their growing geographic footprint and effects on the oak woodland and coastal prairie habitats. Everyone seemed to want them gone. At the time, I was managing ten acres and raising farm animals for meat whilst realizing their domesticated needs were a poor match for my lifestyle. That’s when I became interested in hunting.
I didn’t grow up hunting, nor had anyone in my family. In the beginning, hunting season was the nine days I had a deer tag in my home state of Utah. I’d give it my all, and then shelf the gear and equipment until next time. Over the years, one tag turned into three or more. I started hunting more species, building in the upland and waterfowl seasons, and participating in wildlife surveys, citizen science and trail work in my “off season.” I started growing specific vegetables and herbs in my garden for the wild game recipes I had in mind and hoarding all of my time off for those crucial fall windows. It became harder and harder to delineate when the season actually began and ended. Hunting had become this year-long process of work, focus and stewardship.
So many of our ecosystems evolved with careful human influence. In the case of California, though historically painted as an untouched wilderness by John Muir and others, Europeans actually stumbled into the fertile gardens of California Native Americans like the Pomo and Miwuk and generations of their stewardship of the land. Native Californians managed prescribed fire on the landscape to drive deer into hunting grounds, produce abundant acorn crops and bring the salmon up river in the fall. They dug and separated food and fiber crops, roots, and tubers like iris and Yampa to naturally propagate them, and collected grains like arrowgrass, brome and wild oats by beating their seed heads into baskets allowing for expanded dispersal. For thousands of years, our landscapes were tended, managed and intentionally disturbed in ways that helped the natural world flourish and people thrive. The entire system depended on interaction.
Wildlife management and ecology today require an open mind when it comes to the complexities of human dominated environments, recreation and the preservation of wildlife. When you walk around the oak woodland in California, you notice pig sign everywhere -- tilled up soil beneath the towering Valley Oaks where pigs have been rooting for acorns, mud-caked tree bases where they’ve rubbed after wallowing, browsed young firs, tracks, trails and beds in the tall grasses. Coastal California used to have the largest and highest population density of grizzly bears in North America because of year-round food availability and the addition of seafood and marine mammals to their diet. Just as pigs do today, the bears would move through the grasslands and flip and turn the soil as they looked for food. California is also the former home to large populations of elk, known for their wallowing. This ecosystem evolved with disturbance as a key ingredient.
Today, pigs are the only wallowing species on the landscape in this region, and it has been observed that their wallows create important temporary wetlands and habitat for other species that wouldn’t otherwise exist. Wetlands are increasingly important as wildfires sweep the landscape, as they can be the only refuge at times. Pigs scent mark on young fir trees, which kills saplings and helps with forest thinning and the management of Douglas Fir encroachment on meadows. This is crucial for the preservation of the coastal prairie habitat. As they root for acorns beneath the oaks, they inevitably plant some similar to the jays and squirrels, and they don’t seem to browse on young oaks the way deer do which helps the oaks survive. With grizzlies gone and elk rare, pigs have become an important proxy in the changing ecosystems of California. While they are without a doubt overabundant, if managed by hunters their disturbance qualities in tilling and wallowing could actually fill the roles left by the now absent bear and elk populations in this particular ecosystem.
Hunting pigs for me presented something really interesting because they are an unwanted nuisance. We can compare their positive ecosystem services to bears, but not at their current population. Grizzlies only produce one to two cubs every three years. A female hog could produce up to 72 piglets in that same period of time. Most living predators have not co-evolved with pigs, rendering the population generally unthreatened by other animals, besides some coyotes becoming specialists on piglets. I got fixated on the beauty of the management relationship between pigs and hunters. Unlike most huntable species, pigs have no season and no bag limit. You don’t need to win a lottery or put in for points for 15 years for the opportunity to hunt them. On my first pig hunt, we harvested three animals. The food was shared amongst the group to become sausage, ground, and roast meat for the year. It is hard to deny the beauty of the management relationship between pigs and hunters—we are their natural predators, and they, a regenerative food source that we could harness the ecosystem services of if managed intentionally. This relationship solves a modern environmental issue while producing delicious food and bestowing meaning and connection for how hunters have engaged and managed their ecosystems for thousands of years.
I live in an urban area, far from the opportunity of directly managing large landscapes in a hands-on, holistic way year-round. My stewardship relationship to the wild game that I hunt is a creative mosaic. I seek out opportunities like hunting invasive species because it connects me to a greater sense of belonging and membership to the ecosystem. Throughout the year, I work on public lands and wildlife policy, volunteer, monitor game cameras, contribute to research, scout, and take stock of the important habitat for deer, elk and other species in my region. I tend my garden, nurture pollinators, and plan meals around the success we’ve had. I pair choice cuts with special occasions to share with my community, so the food and the environment it came from can tell its own story. Finding creative ways to live connected to these ideals, tend the land, and share that journey with others is my stewardship, and it's more than just a season.