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Possible pig tracks draw quick attention

ASHLAND — A pair of cougar hunters stumbled upon evidence of a new carpetbagging visitor from the south, and this one could find itself on the wrong end of a gun for it.

Steve Lucier and Tim Storfjell believe they discovered feral pig tracks while hunting for cougars March 23 on federal land in the Buckhorn Springs area southeast of Ashland.

The tracks — at least two full sets — were found in a meadow off Buckhorn Springs Road, which is off Highway 66.

"I wouldn't bet my life on them being pig tracks, but I'm pretty sure," says Storfjell, of Ashland. "They were pretty distinct."

If so, they could be the first confirmed feral swine in about a decade found in the wilds of Southern Oregon, which some biologists fear will become a new home for pigs venturing out of pig-rich Northern California.

Feral pigs are unprotected wildlife and must be killed under new Oregon wildlife laws meant to keep the rooting animals from establishing in Oregon as they have elsewhere in the United States.

"If they're running around and no one's claiming them as personal property, they need to be removed," says Mark Vargas, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Rogue District wildlife biologist.

"We don't want to get them established here," Vargas says. "They're too hard on the habitat of native flora and fauna."

Storfjell says he and Lucier were looking for cougar tracks when they stumbled upon the apparently fresh pig tracks and scat.

According to Washington state wildlife tracking literature, pig tracks can look like small elk tracks, often about 2 inches or so long and more blunt at the tip.

The front dewclaws can leave a crescent-shape print outside and behind the hoofs, while the hind dewclaws can leave dots. Storfjell says the pair checked a tracking application on Lucier's iPod and a pocket naturalist booklet Storfjell carries before deciding the tracks were of feral pigs.

Vargas says he remains skeptical any time someone suggests there is evidence of wild pigs here.

"I can't say no, but no one's provided us a dead pig," Vargas says. "But I won't rule it out."

In the past, pigs discovered in the wild have turned out to be loose domestic swine and even a large but dead pot-bellied pig found off Tolo Road near Gold Ray Dam, Vargas says.

Pockets of wild pigs discovered east of Ashland about 20 years ago appeared to have been killed off more than a decade ago.

Hunters who look for pigs here need only a valid hunting license, Vargas says.

"If somebody gets one, I'd like to see a picture," he says.

Under a law that began Jan. 1, Landowners must report the presence of wild pigs within 10 days of their discovery, and then file a plan with the ODFW within 60 days on how they will eliminate the non-native swine.

The rules were drafted to keep Oregon from becoming the next state overrun by wild swine, which are known to exist only in small pockets in the state.

Legislators couched the law as a way to remove incentives for allowing feral swine to roam on public or private property. States such as Texas and California have popular sport hunts for feral pigs on private ranches and public lands.

But pigs escaping from private California ranches in the 1950s have exploded to where the state now sports as many as 1 million feral pigs, with animals in every county.

Migrant pigs from California are considered a threat to Southern Oregon.

"With the new rules the way they are, it'll be hard for them to get established here," Vargas says.

Feral swine are all non-natives that trace their roots to Europe and Asia. Oregon's first pigs came as an easy food source for early settlers at the mouth of the Columbia River near Astoria. Settlers would let the pigs roam freely, then shoot them when needed.

Any swine on properly fenced private lands are managed as livestock by the Oregon Department of Agriculture. But when they escape or are hunted, they fall under the ODFW's management.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or e-mail mfreeman@mailtribune.com.