It's a warm morning in late July, and we're on a desolate patch of scrub desert with three high-caliber rifles. We came here to kill.
Shaniko, an hour and a half north of Bend, was once called the wool capital of the world. Now it's a ghost town of 36 people, amid hills so overrun with juniper and sagebrush they smell like a soap store.
Out here, it's pig country.
Thousands of wild hogs have invaded Oregon. And as a matter of policy, the state of Oregon wants them dead. Hunting season is year-round. These pigs are serious big-game animals—they grow to be 300 pounds and are as smart as a 3-year-old—but you can bag as many you want with a $32 license you can buy at Walmart.
Wild hogs are one of the most destructive invasive species on earth, causing an estimated $1.5 billion in damage in the 40 U.S. states where they've been found. Everywhere they go they leave carnage in their wake—rototilling the soil with snouts and tusks and acting as a petri dish for disease.
Oregon is at war with invasive plants and animals, and pigs are just one of many threats to native species like steelhead and salmon.
It's something the state is taking seriously—but maybe not seriously enough.
Earlier this year, the state declared that invasive species are "one of the most serious current threats to our economy, ecosystems, infrastructure and natural heritage."
On July 26, scientists and lawmakers from across the Northwest gathered at Portland's Marriott Hotel to file their battle reports. Speakers each brought their own vision of catastrophe, from a tree-killing water mold that has turned 6,200 acres of Oregon forest into quarantined field burns, to mussels that could jam up our hydroelectric plants and turn our watershed into a graveyard.
These threats aren't unique to Oregon, of course. But our unspoiled ecosystem and mild climate make us uniquely vulnerable.
"Myself and my colleagues, we quite literally get the feeling we're under siege," says Clint Burfitt at the Oregon Department of Agriculture. "Lots of other states don't have the pest risk we have. They don't have the immediacy of the impact."
Oregon, Burfitt says, is an Eden ripe for invasion by foreign species. We have dense forests and water systems, a long growing season, and small acreages of high-dollar crops growing close to urban areas. And perhaps most significantly, we have been so far spared the ravages that have already afflicted states to the south and east.
"It's a security issue," says Portland State University's Mark Sytsma, who 16 years ago helped found the Oregon Invasive Species Council to coordinate efforts among a vast, unwieldy consortium of local, state and federal agencies. "People don't tend to see it that way. It's economic security and it's health security. It's important to protecting our way of life. We've invested a billion dollars in salmon recovery. Mussels, flowering rush, pike—they could negate all that spending. We're vulnerable."
State funding to prevent infestations remains low in Oregon compared to our neighbors, especially considering the risks involved. While Montana's wildlife department just allotted $10 million over two years to fight mussels after the state was infested, Oregon funds its $500,000 a year inspection program wholly through boat registrations.
At least in Shaniko, the government has done its job.
I found no pigs on my pig hunt, because the state has done a good job of minimizing these menaces.
Shaniko Ranch owner Jon Justesen says there used to be so many "I used to hit them with my truck," he says happily, remembering better days. "One time I got seven with one pass. Death by Dodge!"
But in the past two years, Justesen says ruefully, the government removed most of them.
"They shot probably a thousand of them," says Justesen about the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "They come in with a four-door helicopter, and there are three guys with shotguns leaning out the doors. I actually banned them from flying over my property. But pigs don't stay still. They moved on over to the Mobleys' place next door, and that's when they shot 'em."
Gary Lewis, a soft-spoken, snakeskin-hatted outdoor writer and Frontier Unlimited TV host who led our hunt, has no sentimentality about dead pigs. "I hate the pigs," he tells us later. "I hate 'em."
Here are 10 plants and animals all Oregonians should hate, and what we're doing to get rid of them before they take over.
Zebra and Quagga Mussels
Worst-case scenario: Dead salmon and rolling brownouts. Millions of tiny mussels disrupt salmon spawning grounds, starve out fish and cost $500 million a year in economic damage—$300 million alone by clogging hydroelectric dams.
Originally from Ukraine, these tiny, fast-reproducing mussels suck all the nutrients out of any water they inhabit. Since stowing away on a ship to Lake Erie in 1989, they've transformed the Great Lakes—killing native clams, harming fisheries and causing botulism-tainted algae blooms that have poisoned thousands of birds.
"They're only as big as your thumbnail but they take in a liter of water a day. Lake Erie gets turned over once every week and a half," says the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Rick Boatner. "They break up the food chain, eat the good phytoplankton and spit bad stuff out. Blue-green algae grows and fish starve."
The mussels have spread rapidly, hitchhiking on boats to waters as far west as California and Montana.
They can arrive attached to any boat exposed to infected water—and just a thimbleful of water containing mussel larvae can doom an entire lake.
"They're transported in the microscopic stage, and they can live out of water for days and weeks depending on temperature and humidity," says Boatner. "They're hovering at the gates."
Since 2011, every boat entering Oregon is required to submit to inspection for quagga and zebra mussels. Of the 16,825 boats checked in 2016, 17 mussel-infested boats were found—although, due to budget shortfalls, no inspections are conducted between October and May.
No one has ever successfully gotten rid of these mussels once they've taken hold, so stopping them on their way into the state is Oregon's only defense. So far, we've been lucky.
Goldfish and Other Carp
Worst-case scenario: A statewide network of mud lakes, with massive damage to birds, salmon and especially trout.
The worst invaders in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge last January weren't the guys with the guns. It was the millions of Asian carp, whose planned eradication was disrupted by the occupiers. Carp are one of the most opportunistic and effective eaters in the world, chumming 20 percent of their body weight in plankton every day and muddying a lake so that other food can't get enough light to grow.
It's almost always humans who introduce carp to ponds and rivers, says ODFW's Boatner, either by dumping out aquariums or by using them as bait fish. Though goldfish—a species of domesticated carp—can look harmless when they're small, they grow into voracious bottom-feeders that lay 40,000 eggs a year. Near Shaniko, at a tributary to the John Day River where rainbow trout are born, so many thousands of goldfish swarm beneath the surface that the lake is the color of rust where they swim.
"Carp are vegetation eaters," says Boatner. "They damage the food supply for the waterfowl. The food is dried up for the birds." They produce more than a million eggs in one go, which means they quickly take over a lake or river, slowly changing the water into a muddy, turbid swamp, an environment they prefer.
Once carp are introduced, you pretty much have to kill the whole lake with a poison called rotenone to get them out. In 2010, Southeast Oregon's Mann Lake was so clogged with its population of 200,000 goldfish that pilots flying overhead could see a "golden halo" of carp beneath the surface, eating all the food and causing native trout to starve. To stop them, officials flooded the lake with poison, then reintroduce the trout to a dead lake.
Sudden Oak Death
Worst-case scenario: Spooky ghost forests and widespread economic devastation. Up to 80 percent of Oregon tanoaks will die, while Douglas firs and redwoods will be seriously harmed. Nurseries get infected, and a quarantine is placed on plants coming from Oregon, destroying a billion-dollar industry.
Sudden oak death is what it sounds like, but worse. An invasive funguslike pathogen of unknown origin, it kills tanoaks with a mortality rate of 50 to 80 percent, and causes blight in Doug firs and coastal redwoods. The dead oak trees turn into ghosts: gray, skeletal husks whose trunks are pocked with bleeding cankers showing diseased pink tree flesh.
The disease can hitchhike from nursery to nursery in soil from any of 135 potential host plants—including rhododendrons, azaleas and camellias—and its spores can travel airborne for up to 4 miles from one tanoak to another.
Parts of California are so infected it's considered a lost cause for eradication—and the disease was first detected in southwestern Oregon's Curry County in 2001. Now, more than a third of the county is under federal quarantine, requiring treatment that involves burning up to 26 acres of forest surrounding each infected tree. So far, 6,200 acres in Curry County have been subject to controlled burns, and the hills are filled with dead trees.
Oregon state Rep. David Brock Smith (R-Port Orford) estimates up to 35 percent of Curry County's economy has already been affected, and tree and habitat death are monumental. If the disease becomes more widespread, Oregon's $830 million nursery industry could be crippled by an international quarantine. U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley is worried enough pushed through $3.7 million in federal funds to help combat a new, virulent strain of the fungus just found in Oregon.
Asian Gypsy Moth
Worst-case scenario: Forests of trees are stripped naked by gypsy-moth caterpillars and potentially finished off by beetles; a quarantine on Oregon trees and plants damages the $830 million nursery industry, the $600 million timber export industry and the $104 million Christmas tree industry.
For 40 years, Oregon has been in a state of near-constant war against the gypsy moth. Asian gypsy moth caterpillars are particularly voracious, potentially defoliating every tree in the forest—leaving them vulnerable to fire and other parasites.
In the Eastern U.S., the moth's Euro-cousin has defoliated entire forests: 29 million acres in a single year, stripping trees of their leaves. The moth's hairs cause rashes in humans, and its feces falls from the trees in such volume that picnics are impossible. Last June, an elderly Boston woman called authorities in tears, afraid she'd break her leg slipping on the fecal slick in her driveway.
Oregon sets 15,000 traps each year at a cost to the state of a half-million dollars, but the moth is hard to prevent because it can arrive in so many ways, including in the holds of ships coming from Eastern Europe.
"In Eastern Asian ports, specifically far east Russian ports, the forests come right up to the port," says the Oregon Department of Agriculture's Burfitt. "The ports are very well-lit, and these moths are attracted to the light."
But they also are sometimes attracted to the glint of a passing car: Vacationers drive them to Oregon in campers. When a dangerous infestation of gypsy moths was discovered and eradicated in Bend in 2006, the moths were eventually traced to a 1967 Chevy the owner had bought on eBay.
Worst-case scenario: "It's Portland's worst nightmare!" Burfitt says. "It kills roses, which doesn't make it too popular in these parts. It eats hops. It feeds on cannabis. And grapes. It eats everything we like." Direct agricultural damages are estimated at $43 million a year.
Since last August, Burfitt has been fighting an entrenched infestation in the West Hills neighborhood of Cedar Mill—a voracious Japanese beetle he says seems specifically designed to destroy the Portland way of life.
It's a bug that is causing a Pharaonic catastrophe in the Midwest: a voracious flying beetle stripping crops of soybean and corn, along with leaves and fruit from trees.
"I've been getting these texts from an ecologist in Missouri," Burfitt says. "They're amazing! Here, from July 23: 'The Bible belt has biblical levels of Japanese beetles, swarms hitting cars like meteor showers.'"
Burfitt's office has set 7,500 traps to stop the Portland invasion, catching as many as 2,000 bugs in a single trap—the population in 2017 was higher than expected, but Burfitt feels confident eradication is still possible. The current effort in Cedar Mill is costing upward of $600,000, including emergency funds. If eradication fails, that's the end of a Portland without the Japanese beetle.
Worst-case scenario: We're living it: a continuing, endless nuisance
that costs $39 million a year.
In 1850, Scottish army officer Walter Colquhoun Grant grew nostalgic for the pretty little yellow flower that grew in his homeland. And so he unleashed one of the most noxious invasive plants Oregon has ever seen on Vancouver Island.
Like the Himalayan blackberry you see taking over vacant fields, Scotch broom chokes out native plants, takes over entire fields of grassland in ways that harm bird and bee populations, and makes drastic incursions into agriculture. It now covers 1.5 million acres in Oregon, and has no native predators.
And yet, it's pretty enough our own government used it to control erosion in the '40s, on dunes and on freeway road cuts.
"There are old postcards showing the beauty of the Scotch broom along roadsides," says Vern Holm of the Western Invasives Network, a nonprofit devoted to controlling noxious invasive weeds. "It was It was a good idea gone bad, just like kudzu."
Worst-case scenario: Toothy "slough sharks" eat all the salmon and trout before we can get to them. After they've eaten all the salmon, they'll eat each other.
"Northern pike are coming," says the Kalispel tribe's wildlife manager Joe Maroney at the Marriott meeting. "And you should be very afraid. If you live in Portland, you should be nervous. If you like to fish for salmon or steelhead, you should be nervous."
Nicknamed the "up-north barracuda," it's the most voracious river predator in North America, feeding relentlessly on other fish. In Southcentral Alaska, invasive northern pike are being caught with baby salmon still in their bellies.
And in Eastern Washington's Box Canyon Reservoir, which flows into the Upper Columbia River 640 miles upstream from Portland, Maroney saw the pike's population jump from 400 in 2004 to 5,500 in 2010. After a radical effort, those pike are somewhat under control, but Maroney says they keep returning. "You see a dot [on the map] here, a dot here," Maroney says. "Then it's like you're riddled with chickenpox."
The Kalispel had to install a radical gillnetting program that involved setting 124 miles of nets for five consecutive years, catching upward of 46,000 fish each year and throwing back the ones that weren't pike. Only 10 percent of the by-catch died, he says.
Emerald Ash Borer
Worst-case scenario: Up to 99 percent of ash trees die in zones affected by this beetle.
The emerald ash borer, a metallic-green beetle about the size of a carpenter ant, has wreaked massacres on ash trees in the United States since its discovery 15 years ago in Canton, Mich.
Wyatt Williams, the Oregon Department of Forestry's invasive species specialist, knows that within a single piece of firewood from Colorado could lurk the destruction of almost every ash tree in the state. The beetle has now spread to 30 states, eating its way beneath the bark of ash trees until they die. The bug has no native predators that can control its population. It's never been successfully eradicated.
Since its 2002 introduction in Michigan, the ash borer has swept the Eastern states' ash trees, killing nearly every one. By the year 2019, it's expected the bug will have killed 9 billion trees in the U.S., and it leapfrogged to Colorado last year. First, trees died in Denver, and then in Boulder. Colorado Springs awaits its fate.
The only way to stop the borer is to make sure it doesn't enter the state—it won't cross the Rockies unless someone brings infested wood into Oregon. And while Oregon has a rule restricting interstate transit of firewood, Williams worries that's not enough.
"The firewood rule is nice," says Williams. "But it's unfunded. They've never done a single inspection and never assessed any penalties."
Worst-case scenario: Slow-flowing bodies of water turn into oxygen-depleted swamps covered in yellow flowers. Fish, herons, egrets, salamanders and turtles are threatened.
Six years ago, Willamette Mission State Park near Keizer was a popular spot for paddleboats and fishermen. Now, the waterway is choked so completely with yellow-flowering aquatic plants that it's possible to walk on top of them. The water primrose, brought in from Uruguay as a decorative flower for aquariums and water gardens, is so difficult to remove that conservation groups must use herbicides to kill large expanses.
"It's killing the Willamette River in places," says the Invasives Network's Vern Holm. "It totally invades flat-water areas, and grows up to 3 feet over the waterline. The people controlling it are walking across a mat of plants. You can't fish, you can't bird-watch, you can't go canoeing. How can you put a cost on not being able to canoe or kayak into your favorite place?"
Worst-case scenario: Hundreds of thousands of pigs destroy Eastern Oregon highways, uproot city parks and dig 6-foot ruts into high school football fields.
A single full-grown boar is 300 pounds of fur, muscle and vicious tusk that can run 30 miles an hour on the hoof. Wild pigs have no steady habits you can depend on, and they multiply faster than a calculator, with the potential to double their population every year. They're a $1.5 billion national crisis.
But in Oregon, where the pig population never got higher than a few thousand, it's still possible to win the fight. In fact, there's reason to believe we've already turned the tide after a campaign of relentless helicopter culling dropped the population estimates to 500.
But to see what could happen in Oregon if we fail, look to California and Texas, where the battle has already been lost. "In California, the feral pig is the No. 1 big-game animal in the state—that's the wrong place to be," says Gary Lewis, while out with us hunting for pigs.
In Texas, there is routine talk of a "hog apocalypse," and desperate lawmakers this year approved pig hunting by hot air balloon, by helicopter and with wickedly painful poisons.
Lewis says he disagrees with anyone who lets a pig live.
"I met a couple who said they were pig hunters," Lewis says. "They said they've killed 27 pigs. They killed a sow and she had seven babies. They walked up to where the babies were and then brought the gun real close."
He makes a rapid trigger-pull gesture with his hand, over and over.
"Bap bap bap bap bap bap bap!" he says. "That was seven of their 27 kills. That's how you have to be."