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Pigs Take River--Officials Hogtied : Environment: Hundreds of 300-pound porkers roam riverbed thickets, ravaging plant life and scaring equestrians. Riverside County searches for eviction plan.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The thicket-like Santa Ana River bottom has for years been a notorious hiding place for fugitives, abandoned cars and marijuana plants.

Those problems Riverside County authorities have been able to handle.

But they aren’t so sure about a burgeoning population of domestic pigs running free along a seven-mile stretch of river from Riverside west almost to Prado Dam. Increasingly, horseback riders have spotted the elusive, 300- to 400-pound hogs bursting through bamboo-like grass and onto the county’s popular Santa Ana River Regional Park trail system.

“They just crush right through the trail,” said Mark Hernandez, who has spotted the pigs at least seven times in as many months when he takes evening rides on the trails near Pedley. “There’s no warning. And they’re huge.”

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Authorities fear that the population of the hogs, estimated from 300 to 400, could spiral out of control. And that boom would bring with it another set of problems.

For one thing, the pigs aren’t exactly dainty in their search for food.

“Pigs are extremely destructive to the vegetation,” said Carla Wakeman, a natural resource specialist for Riverside County. “Their rooting is destructive. They root for insects, earthworms, larvae. But it’s not so much what they eat as what they destroy.”

The pigs apparently are harming the riverbed’s natural habitat, home to the least Bell’s vireo, a bird on the endangered species list.

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Also, parks officials and horse owners say the pigs could scare horses, causing inexperienced riders to be thrown to the ground. No one has been hurt so far.

“It’s going to be a danger pretty soon,” said Hernandez, who sits on a special committee trying to come up with a way to deal with the hogs. “I know it’s going to be a kid or an Orange County rider out here on the weekend that gets thrown from a horse.”

Because the pigs have taken up residence at the bottom of a river bluff, away from populated areas, noise and smell are not a problem.

Still, some county officials see it as yet another side effect of urban sprawl.

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“You dump these pigs, and look what it’s caused,” said Paul Frandsen, deputy director of operations and natural resources for the county Parks Department. “We know we’re going to have to do something about it. It’s not an easy issue.”

County officials say the pigs were first seen in the region in 1985. Theories about how they got there vary. Some say they escaped from nearby hog auctions or farms, living off the land and multiplying.

Other, more conspiratorial theories point to a disgruntled Rubidoux ranch owner who, they suspect, released about two dozen pigs into the wild as a way of getting back at the county over a land dispute.

Whatever the case, once they were free, the swine had no problem making the river their home. Pig experts say that they are attracted to the swampy area, where they live on fruit, nuts, wild berries and a host of other foods. At the same time, they can hide in the dense grass that reaches 12 to 15 feet and shields parts of the river from above.

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“They’ll migrate right to the riverbed; that’s their survival,” said Sandy Tourigny, who runs Zar’s Red Power Durocs, a pig farm in nearby Mira Loma. “They start reverting back to the wild.”

Pig experts say the animals are not likely to attack. Some hogs may be growing inch-long tusks, but nothing close to the long tusks found on wild boars.

“If you go in there and start beating on them, like any animal, they are going to respond,” Tourigny said.

Since the summer, the county Parks Department has been working with the state Fish and Game Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to study ways of curbing the pig population growth.

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But it will not be easy. Experts say females can have about five or six piglets to a litter and can give birth as often as twice a year.

“It’s like boom, boom, boom and you’ve got pigs coming under your desk,” said Frandsen, of the Parks Department. He said that if a controlled hunt were allowed, hunters probably would not track down enough pigs to make a dent in the population. Conversely, he said, “If you do nothing they will continue to grow.”

Gun and archery clubs have offered to kill them, either from the ground or from helicopters. Some riders say they already have seen hunters hauling off dead hogs, presumably for a barbecue.

But public officials say that a controlled hunt could become a political mud bath.

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Another proposal calls for placing pens along the river bottom and feeding the pigs. Gradually, they would grow accustomed to the easy meals and arrive in greater numbers. Then, one night, the pens would be locked, trapping a large share of them. The pigs would be auctioned or sold to farmers.

“This would be a humane approach, and it would be time consuming,” said Rosanna Scott, senior administrative assistant to Riverside County Supervisor Melba Dunlap, who represents much of the unincorporated area. “But if we sold the pigs, we probably could recoup the cost. They are very large, and they are probably very tasty.”

If it does not work, chances are Dunlap will not be the only elected official saddled with the pig problem. During next year’s redistricting, the river will be split in three, and two other supervisors will have to deal with it. It remains to be seen whether the pigs will become an election issue.

“We have all kinds of challenges to government right now,” Scott said. “We didn’t need this one.”

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Pig Problem

Riverside County authorities are trying to deal with an ever-growing population of domestic pigs, now running free along a seven-mile stretch along the river from Riverside almost to the Prado Dam.


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