SALT LAKE CITY — Sightings of wild and possibly illegal sheep and pigs on a remote island of the Great Salt Lake have prompted investigations by multiple state agencies.
Yet, for the past year-and-a-half, little has been done about it.
The pigs on Fremont Island appear to be Russian boars, which are not only illegal in Utah, but can carry disease. It is unknown how they arrived, or what species they actually are, but one was spotted early last year roaming the Antelope Island causeway.
"In the act of trying to capture it, it drowned and the animal died," said Utah Division of Wildlife Resources Sgt. Mitch Lane.
He said it was apparent that the pig came from Fremont Island, where a private hunting ranch is currently in operation, boasting various animals such as unusual wild sheep, some cattle and more than a dozen pigs.
"By all appearances, it looked like this could have been one," Lane said, adding that the pigs had long, brown hair and large tusks that were visible from agency helicopters hovering over the island's highest peak, Castle Rock.
The biggest concern officials have, however, isn't where the animals came from or whether the animals are licensed to be there, but that both the sheep and pigs could spread disease or interbreed with other wild animal populations living on Antelope Island.
"It scares me to think of a feral pig population becoming a challenge in Utah like it is in so many other states," said Bruce L. King, state veterinarian and director of Utah's animal industry. "Not only because of the property damage and the crop damage they do, but if you get disease in that feral population, it's almost impossible to control."
If it were up to him, King said he'd ban all domestic swine hunting in Utah because of how great the threat that disease infestation is.
"If they can get off of Fremont Island to the causeway, they can sure get off to the mainland," he said.
It is suspected that farmers and other agribusinesses in Utah would frown on the possibility of the non-native animals mingling among their own, Lane said.
Still, experts can't be sure the animals are not native, as genetic tests do not exist to positively identify the species of sheep and pigs that are said to be roaming the northwest point of the 42-square-mile island.
Fremont, southwest of Ogden and south of Promontory Point's southern tip, is the third-largest island in the Great Salt Lake, at 2,900 acres. It is privately owned, mostly desolate and bears little sign of human habitation, having changed very little since early pioneers arrived in the Salt Lake valley.
In recent years, the desert island has been rented by father and son duo, Dean and Justin Barrow, for use of their private hunting ranch, Barrow Land and Livestock. The two had originally set out to stock the island with buffalo and other wild animals, offer guided hunting excursions and charge between $1,000 and $10,000 per kill.
One such hunter, Outdoor Life hunting editor Andrew McKean, said he participated in a tour on Fremont Island in March 2010, where he bagged a wild boar, among other prohibited species in the state of Utah.
"I've hunted wild sheep and wild hogs around the world, and the Fremont Island animals were as described: mainly Mouflon, Corsican and Barbary sheep — with a few Merino rams mixed in — and Russian boar," he said. "Though they undoubtedly had exotic pedigrees, they behaved as wild animals, and we hunted them in the best traditions of fair-chase pursuit."
While McKean was unaware the animals were illegal, Utah Division of Wildlife regulations state that it is illegal to collect, import or possess the majority of what he said he hunted on the island. Justin Barrow has since confirmed that there are wild pigs on the island.
"They're a very neat attraction," he said, although he would not confirm the species, saying he'd have to "check on that."
It isn't clear which state agency has the jurisdiction to pursue the legalities of the animals being there, but so far, not much has been done to enforce or curtail the operation. The Barrows, however, do have a history of investigations with the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food and the DWR, and each is looking into the matter.
Last week, representatives from the two agencies met to discuss possible changes to regulations that would more clearly define what is legal.
Owners of the island filed a civil lawsuit against the Barrows in August, citing unpaid rent and use of fraudulent checks. Court documents state that more than $88,750 is owed pursuant to the lease agreement signed in 2006.
A restitution hearing dealing with the matter is ongoing in Ogden's 2nd District Court. Island Properties, which manages Fremont Island for its owners, is seeking to evict the Barrows and their wild animals.