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Former owners question pig killings at Placer County’s Hidden Falls park

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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The sound of gunshots has been a constant, unsettling part of mornings for rural Placer County couple Gayle and Brad Spears since early this year. Gayle Spears hears the far-off gunshots and knows that they probably mean more members of the Hidden Falls Regional Park wild pig population are being killed. Placer County officials said Wednesday that feral pigs are being killed under a state Department of Fish & Game depredation permit in an attempt to limit erosion, impacts on other species and damage to oak woodlands habitat from the rapidly propagating population. The Spears hear the gunshots, see the trappers and want it to stop. “It’s upsetting at 6 a.m. because you know what they’re doing,” Spears said. “To see this going on makes me cry.” For the Spears, the county is not only killing both adult and baby pigs but breaking an agreement they thought they had when they sold the land eight years ago. But Facility Services Department Deputy Director Mary Dietrich said that while the county is required to retain the land as open space and has recently developed environmental guidelines, reducing the park’s pig population is considered part of its responsibilities as custodians of the property and not forbidden in any agreement with the Spears. Josh Huntsinger, Placer County agricultural commissioner, said that because of the increasing pig population, the county was granted a depredation permit that runs through Friday. The younger pigs are just as valuable to remove as older ones, he said. “In the local area around the park, pig permits are extremely common,” Huntsinger said. Loren Clark, director of Placer County Legacy, said that feral pigs – as a non-native species with no natural predators – are a problem to property owners throughout the Garden Bar area near the park. Erosion, water quality, oak damage from foraging, and over-competition against natural species are some of the issues revolving around the wild-pig population, he said. The Spears once owned the 960 acres Hidden Falls Regional Park has been expanded into. They say they feel that the sale of the land came with a promise to protect the wildlife. Now – with as many as three county wildlife specialist trappers and a U.S. Department of Agriculture trapper working at Hidden Falls – the Spears are saying that they can’t understand why the killings are taking place when alternatives exist. The Spears said they suspect the county is acting on neighbors’ complaints. They said property owners adjacent to the park should be erecting fences or putting in electric “hot wires” to keep pigs out. The pigs could also be trapped and moved, Gayle Spears said. With shooting coming from the middle of the near-1,000 acres of wildland, the Spears say those pigs aren’t causing problems for nearby residents. Dietrich said the county initiated the permit process with Fish & Game based on current and future damage. The current permit expires Friday. Clark said that any future planning for the land would include provisions to control the feral pig population. Brad Spears said he’s encountered three county trappers and a federal trapper – armed and with dogs. The trappers are using food and bait to lure the pigs to their deaths, he said. “I can’t understand what they’re doing,” Brad Spears said. “There’s 1,000 acres and plenty of room for everybody.” Placer Land Trust wasn’t involved in the Hidden Falls purchase but has worked with land-owners to secure rights to preserve agricultural property nearby. Executive Director Jeff Darlington said he understands the county’s desire to thin or eliminate the wild pig population. “Feral pigs are a real problem for habitat,” Darlington said. “They’re tough on the oak woodland and cause a lot of erosion. They’re non-native and proliferate quite quickly.” Gayle Spears estimated the pigs reach about 200 pounds but Huntsinger said boars can weigh in at 300 or 400 pounds. “They’re like a roto tiller out there,” Darlington said. Huntsinger said the dead pigs are left where they are killed – usually lying in dense brush. Dietrich said the county Health and Human Services Department has ruled that health provisions wouldn’t allow meat from an unapproved source to be utilized at, for example, a food bank. Darlington said the Placer Land Trust has been issued depredation permits on some of the land it has easements on or owns. Eventually, he would like to see a hunt take place – something that is administered by Fish & Game, with a limited number of hunters and permits issued. “They’re (landowners) not out to destroy a species – they’re out to protect habitat and resources,” Darlington said. Hidden Falls park is located about halfway between Auburn and Lincoln, off Mount Vernon Road.