Head east on Highway 44 toward Lassen Peak and turn south on Millville Plains Road shortly after you pass Palo Cedro, and you might as well be in a different state. Kansas perhaps. Nebraska. Or maybe an Andrew Wyeth painting.
As you wind your way south through a slightly concave bowl toward Dersch Road, it’s as if the amber waves of grassland extend to the horizon, interrupted only by the infrequent ranch or homestead inhabited by people who’ve chosen to live out here exactly because it provides this sort of solitude.
Their seclusion was dramatically interrupted in April when Shasta County District 4 supervisor and board chair Patrick Jones’s ambitious plans for the High Plains Shooting Sports Center were presented at a Shasta County Planning Commission meeting. Amidst thousands of acres of rolling grassland, Jones hopes to install, on a 150-acre parcel he purchased in 2010, a shooting sports facility to rival any in the United States, with an estimated cost of $10 million, if built according to its conceptional development plan.
Chair Jones did not reply to A News Café’s inquiries for this story. The last time I spoke to the supervisor, he threatened to have me arrested for trespassing after I revealed in May the potentially illegal contained or “canned” wild pig hunting business he operated on his Millville Plains property from approximately 2018 to 2022, which will be discussed shortly.
I based the cost of Jones’s proposed gun range on a similarly sized facility that’s being proposed in Rapid City, South Dakota. Both projects feature more than 150 shooting stations for rifles, shotguns, and handguns. The estimated cost of the Rapid City project, which will be built on a roomy 400 acres and is publicly funded, is $9 million. So far the project has only received one bid, for $19 million.
This immediately begs the question: Where is Chair Jones, who according to his most recent campaign filing subsists on his approximately $50,000 supervisor salary, and a similar income from clerking at Jones Fort, the family gun store, going to get the millions of dollars he’ll need to build his dream project?
Obviously, he’s going to have to raise the money, and his high-profile status as a county supervisor can’t help but aid in that cause, raising the potential for myriad conflicts of interest. Chair Jones should have recused himself from voting on his own self-serving 2nd Amendment Resolution earlier this year since he was well aware of his own plans to build a multi-million-dollar gun range.
Call him the High Plains Grifter.
This can be said with some confidence because Jones has demonstrated a supernatural ability to go his own way (bully and lie), no matter how wrong-headed the decision, its cost to taxpayers, or its potential illegality. See firing Dr. Karen Ramstrom, terminating Shasta County’s contract with Dominion Voting Systems, the ongoing lack of decorum at board meetings, etc.
Jones did recuse himself from Zone Amendment 13-007, the resolution to change the zoning on his 151.78-acre property on the Millville Plains that came before the board of supervisors in May. Like most of the properties in the surrounding area, it’s currently zoned as a Limited-Residential combined with Mobile Home and Building Site 40-acre Minimum Lot Area (R-L-T-BA-40). Jones seeks to change it to a Commercial Recreation (C- R) zone district in order to build his dream project.
Millville Plains property owners sprang into action after the scope of Jones’s project was presented at the April Planning Commission meeting, peppering Department of Resource Management’s planning division with questions about every aspect of the gun range project and besieging it with public records requests.
Their objections led to Zone Amendment 13-007 being pulled from the board of supervisors’ agenda in May without a vote. Its return to the agenda awaits the completion of responses to a variety of complaints raised about the project by Millville Plains property owners and residents, including the potential degradation of sensitive wetlands on Jones’s property, noise pollution from continuous gunfire, the potential harm posed by stray bullets and ricochets to passersby within a mile of the range and increased wildfire risk.
The project has been granted Mitigated Negative Declaration status, which means Jones has agreed to mitigate such concerns by, for example, avoiding construction on environmentally sensitive vernal pools, building sound barriers to attenuate gunshots, constructing berms/backstops large enough to prevent bullets and ricochets from exiting the range and developing a wildfire fighting and escape plan for the complex. The project does not require an Environmental Impact Report to be completed as long as Jones follows through on the mitigation.
That doesn’t sit well with the Millville Plains landowners. To a person, they are gun rights supporters who are comfortable being around firearms. But they also agree that no one wants to live in such close proximity to a gun range, especially one on the scale of Jones’s proposed project, which will be open 12 hours per day, five days per week, and plans to host more than a dozen professional shooting events annually, with overnight camping and as many as 500 contestants per event.
“It’s too small a property to do what they’re proposing, it’s not feasible,” said Judy Hoffman, who raises champion Boer show goats on land immediately east and just south of Jones’ proposed gun range. She’s worried about the effect the shooting noise will have on her 300 goats.
“No one who shoots would live next door to a gun range,” Hoffman said. “He’s trying to build at everyone else’s risk. As a rancher or a farmer, you’re a keeper of the land. You’re trying to do things that are right for the land. This goes against everything in our nature. It’s just wrong.”
Despite claims that the project will increase property values in the area, the Millville Plains landowners believe their property values will crater if it is built. If the Shasta County Board of Supervisors approves the C-R zoning change for High Plains Shooting Sports Center despite their objections, the owners plan to file a class action takings lawsuit against the county.
“We and every other property owner are going to sue for takings if this goes through,” said Dwight DeMers, an Orangevale real estate investor who owns nearly 600 mostly undeveloped acres that border Jones’ property on the east, alongside Bear Creek.
If successful, the lawsuit will negate the county’s claim that Jones’ gun range project won’t impact the general fund. It wouldn’t be the first time Jones has cost taxpayers money. This is a man who steadfastly refuses to acknowledge the negative consequences his own poorly thought-out actions have on others.
The canned wild pig hunting operation Jones ran on his Millville Plains property from around 2018 right up until last year is yet another case in point.
I first learned about Jones’ canned wild pig hunting operation in May, when I met a dozen Millville Plains landowners at the dusty crossroad near the northwest corner of Jones’ property. From what I knew about wild pig hunting, what they told me about Jones’ operation sounded incredible, and possibly illegal.
They said Jones was allegedly trucking in large Russian hybrid boars and keeping them in pens on his property, located out of sight in a ravine right next to Bear Creek, which forms the eastern border of his parcel. A hunting guide then placed an advertisement for wild pig hunts on the internet.
The wild pigs and the hunters inevitably strayed onto neighboring properties, where the pigs proliferated and ran hog wild in an area where they’d been previously eradicated according to local residents.
“They are not afraid of man, especially when you bring in the 600-pound wild boars,” Hoffman said. “What they were really doing was terrorizing us. We were afraid to go on our own property. One of those pigs came down the creek and charged the kids.”
Hoffman noticed that as soon as Jones’s wild pigs appeared on the west bank of Bear Creek, fish disappeared from the creek and its waters became murkier.
Frank Banuelos is a Vietnam veteran who lives with his wife Anne on a small ranch near the intersection of Dersch Road and Leopard Drive. Leopard Drive will serve as the gun range’s main entrance if it’s built according to plan. Banuelos has PTSD and says he’ll be forced to move if the range is built.
Their property is immediately adjacent to Jones’ southern border, and they spotted the gun store scion when he allegedly began trucking in the wild pigs four to five years ago.
“Because I live next to him, I saw him bringing those pigs in,” said Banuelos, who gained experience raising large boars while growing up in Fresno. “I asked him, ‘Do you know anything about pigs?’ He said no. I said, well I do. What you got to do is build a concrete floor that’s 12 x 12 and you only put in two pigs. You got to put main poles that are four inches or wider and fill them with cement all the way around. The crossbars, you got to put four or five crossbars out of three-inch pipe. My uncles used to raise them.”
“But Jones didn’t do that!” Banuelos said. “They kept getting out, going into my pasture, tearing the hell out of my pasture!”
Frustrated by Jones’ failure to keep his wild pigs fenced in, Banuelos called Shasta County Animal Control in October 2019. Animal Control officer Colleen Gifford remembers taking the call and exploring which agency actually has jurisdiction over wild pigs: local Animal Control, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, or the U.S. Department of Agriculture/Forest Service. That’s how she discovered the fuzzy existential status of the wild pig in California.
If the swine is running around loose then it’s considered a wild pig and falls under the CDFW’s jurisdiction. But put the wild pig in a box, as Jones had done with his large pig huts right next to Bear Creek, and it becomes a domestic pig under the purview of the USDA. Legally, you can put the pig to death right there with a gunshot.
Gifford never really got a definitive answer on the topic from either agency. There may not be one.
It’s similar to Schrödinger’s cat, the well-known quantum physics thought experiment in which a cat, a flask of poison, and a radioactive element are sealed out of sight in a steel container or box. When the radioactive element decays, a signal from a Geiger counter breaks the poison flask, killing the cat. But thanks to quantum uncertainty, until we open the box we can’t know if the element has decayed or not.
Therefore, we must consider the cat as dead and alive at the same time, which serves as a metaphor for quantum superposition.
Replacing Schrödinger’s cat with a wild pig offers a more humane update on the thought experiment. Instead of being dead and alive at the same time, Schrödinger’s pig is both wild and domestic at the same time, as long as the box remains sealed. When the box is opened, whether or not it’s a wild or domestic pig depends more on the observer than the pig itself.
There are an estimated 400,000 wild pigs in California, which can be found in 56 of the state’s 58 counties. According to CDFW’s Wild Pig Management Program, the state’s wild pigs are a product of colonialism:
“Pigs (sus scrofa) are native to Eurasia and northern Africa. In the early 1700s Spanish and Russian settlers introduced domestic pigs to California as livestock and many became feral. In the 1920s a Monterey County landowner introduced the European wild boar, a wild subspecies of Sus scrofa into California, which bred with the domestic pigs. The result of these introductions is a wild boar/feral domestic pig hybrid.”
What Hoffman and others call a “Russian hybrid boar” is also known as a “Eurasian boar.” After centuries of inbreeding in the United States, there are more similarities between wild pig subspecies than there are differences.
With their characteristic dark color, protruding tusks and raised “razorback” shoulders with stiff upright bristles, wild pigs look more fearsome than domestic pigs, but as pointed out in this article from the San Luis Obispo New Times, they are almost identical genetically. Domestic pigs that escape captivity can go feral in as little as four months and produce a multitude of wild offspring in a single generation.
Wild pigs are more prevalent in Napa, Monterey, and San Luis Obispo counties than they are in far northern California. Because their rooting and foraging behavior does enormous damage to pastures, crops, vineyards, streams, and other property, Sen. Bill Dodd (D-Napa) called them an invasive species in his feral pig regulation bill, SB 856, signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom last year.
Wild pigs in California were first declared a game animal in 1957; SB 856 redefines wild pigs as an “exotic game animal, a term defined to include wild pigs, feral pigs, and wild boar.” The bill is geared toward eradicating the invasive species and replaces the CDFW’s pig tag, which is currently required to take each wild pig, with an annual wild pig validation stamp that permits the unlimited taking of wild pigs of both sexes beginning July 1, 2024. Wild pig depredation permits available to landowners will also become unlimited.
The bill recognized that commercial wild pig hunting operations, rather than control the wild pig population as advertised, have more often resulted in wild pig population explosions. With the passage of SB 856, no new commercial wild pig hunting operations will be permitted and existing concerns will be phased out over time. It is now “unlawful to intentionally or knowingly release any hog, boar, pig, or swine to live in a wild or feral state upon public or private land.”
In fact, such activities were already illegal without authorization from the CDFW when Jones was operating his canned hunting operation. As Peter Tira, state information officer for the CDFW explains, it’s complicated.
“Prior to SB 856, it was illegal to capture and relocate wild pigs without authorization from CDFW (Fish and Game Code 3005.5),” Tira said in an email. “Commercial hunting operations on a private property may require a commercial hunting club permit (FGC 3240.5) and would require a hunting guide license from CDFW (FGC 2536).”
Chair Jones did not reply when asked if he’d received authorization or permits from the CDFW to relocate the boars or hunt them on his property. Perhaps that’s because enforcement is rare, according to CDFW spokesman Tira.
Blame it on Schrödinger’s pig.
“In practice, there has been little if any enforcement on these rules for wild pigs, because of the practical difficulty in differentiating wild pigs from domestic pigs in a conclusive way that would hold up in a court of law,” Tira said.
That state of uncertainty definitely benefitted Jones to the detriment of his neighbors during the time period his canned hunt was in operation. After Animal Control contacted him, Jones visited Banuelos, plopped a bag of seed on his doorstep to compensate for the extensive damage his wild pigs had done to his neighbor’s pasture, and walked off with hardly a word as Banuelos stared on dumbfounded.
Although Jones told Animal Control he would mend his fences, his wild pigs continued to escape into the surrounding countryside in the coming months, where they bred, multiplied, and damaged more property.
“Pigs may escape from captive operations and then become feral on adjacent property, such that these operations do not help control wild pigs in any way,” CDFW spokesman Tira said. “A recently published paper shows that the sanctioning of wild pig hunting preserves is associated with the presence, spatial coverage, and spread of wild pig populations.”
My own personal experience with wild pigs has occurred mainly while driving. I live in Whitmore, about 15 miles east of the Millville Plains, and Whitmore Road is not infrequently littered with the corpses of wild pigs struck by trucks and automobiles.
It’s not uncommon to see a pair of 200-pound sows followed by a dozen or more wild juveniles crossing the road at dusk, a formation known as a sounder. On my motorcycle, I once grazed against a huge black razorback boar that crossed my path in the middle of the night. It didn’t faze the beast in the slightest.
Aaron Grabiel is a local fishing and hunting guide whose services can be found at Harvest Wild. In the past, Grabiel has led guided wild pig hunts on a large 5000-acre ranch located alongside Whitmore Road. Hunting guides purchase a lease from the ranchers then bring their clients onto the property to shoot wild pigs, deer, elk, and other game.
Occasionally, you’ll see hunting guides and their clients riding side-by-sides into the oak savannah, clad in camouflage and armed with assault-style rifles, on the hunt for wild pigs.
“To hunt pigs you take the high ground, the best vantage point,” Grabiel said. “They have a terrific sense of smell, but poor eyesight. You can stalk up to them real slow, as long as you’re downwind, they have incredible noses.”
This makes wild pigs ideal game for beginning hunters or older hunters with physical challenges and contained wild pig hunting operations are often geared to such customers. According to several sources including Grabiel, Jones was giving away free wild pig hunts to members of the community who couldn’t otherwise afford to go hunting on their own.
“It’s a real community service for the first-time hunter, you get that first hunt under your belt,” Grabiel said.
“He was doing a huge service. They get to harvest their own pig. They get that first kill under their belt, you coach them through it.”
Grabiel was unaware that Jones was allegedly importing 600-pound Russian hybrid boars to the site but noted that the “the Russian razorback is really cool, it’s black with wiry hair, it looks badass. People don’t want to shoot Wilbur.” (Wilbur is the domestic pig protagonist in the popular “Charlotte’s Web” children’s novel by E.B. White.)
Grabiel said most people overestimate the weight of adult wild pigs, which range from 50 inches to 74 inches in length and weigh 75 pounds to 250 pounds. Still, 600-pound boars are not unheard of. He steers his clients toward wild boars weighing from 140 to 250 pounds, which have better-tasting meat.
Judy Hoffman, the award-winning show goat rancher who owns property across from Jones on Bear Creek, is adamant that Jones was bringing in larger-than-average wild boars. In their first brush with the feral swine several years ago, a huge black razorback boar with fearsome tusks lunged out of the underbrush toward her husband and grandkids. Their six English Mastiffs gained control of the enormous hog and rolled it down the hill into the creek.
“None of my dogs got hurt, but the point was we couldn’t even use the creek for about two years because every time we were down there, the pigs were there, and they chase you, and they can run,” she explained.
After the first incident, Hoffman went on the internet and discovered a hunting guide was charging customers $800 to hunt the Russian hybrid boars on Jones’ property. The post has since been removed.
“Patrick was pretty clever,” she said. “He didn’t put it in his own name.”
According to Hoffman, instead of hunting the wild pigs on Jones’ 150-acre property, the guide pushed the wild pigs east, across Bear Creek, and onto her property and Dwight DeMers’s undeveloped 600-acre spread, where the pigs’ population ultimately exploded.
Hoffman, Demers, Banuelos, a local caretaker, and others insist that wild pigs were not a problem in the immediate vicinity of Millville Plains until after Jones began allegedly importing wild boars there four to five years ago.
DeMers occasionally travels north from Orangevale to camp on his property and ride horses next to Bear Creek. One morning several years ago, he and his son were startled by six camouflaged men armed with assault-style rifles who marched right through their camp. That’s how DeMers learned wild pigs were being hunted on his land.
At the time, DeMers was leasing space to Wootens Queens and Bees, the local beekeeping company based in Palo Cedro. Unbeknownst to DeMers, Jones’ wild pigs were coming onto the property and knocking over beehives. According to a caretaker for the property, Wootens contacted USDA wildlife specialist David Johnson, sometimes referred to as the “state trapper,” to trap and remove the wild pigs. As many as 100 wild pigs were trapped and eradicated on the property.
Wootens Queens and Bees did not respond to A News Café’s inquiry regarding the damage the wild pigs caused to the beehives. David Johnson, the state trapper, is apparently retired now and I was unable to contact him through the USDA.
He’s a real person though. Hoffman called him to trap the wild pigs that strayed onto her property. She had applied for a depredation permit from CDFW, but she never heard back from them, so she contacted the USDA.
“The state trapper came out,” Hoffman said. “He set traps, they were coming right into my yard.”
Why exactly the wild pigs came under the jurisdiction of the USDA and the state trapper and not the CDFW remains uncertain. Were they considered wild or domestic pigs? Once again, we can blame this ambiguity on the Schrödinger’s pig phenomenon, but not for long.
According to the CDFW spokesman Tria, thanks to SB 856, beginning July 1, 2024, “all domestic pigs will be required to be marked as such, making it much easier to identify wild pigs and prove instances of illegal relocation and hunting.”
And end to the uncertainty? We shall see.
Like the proposed shooting facility in South Dakota, opposition to Jones’s proposed High Plains Shooting Sports Center comes from a seemingly unlikely source: rural residents who share many of the same conservative values as Jones, but oppose the gun range because it threatens their rural way of life.
Hoffman moved to the Millville Plains 25 years ago, after a zoning change in Issaquah, Wash., made ranching prohibitively expensive in western Washington state. They now live on land first settled by George and Anna Maria Dersch in the 1860s in a house built in the 1880s. She’s not convinced the potential noise from the gun range can be mitigated, and worries about its effect on her livestock and the surrounding wildlife.
“We’re a little concerned; people infringing on our rights, changing the rules, changing the zoning,” she said. “It’s going to distress all the wildlife out there. We have coyotes and wolves on that creek, but the only animals I’ve felt afraid of were the wild pigs that were down there.”
She said the condition of Bear Creek has improved since Jones stopped allegedly importing pigs to the property sometime last year.
“The disruption to the creek has ceased and desisted,” Hoffman said. “I can’t prove it was him, but it’s a suspicious coincidence.”
Shasta County senior planner David Schlegel is the lead planner on the gun range project. I emailed Schlegel photos of the shed and the water tank Jones used to feed and water his wild pigs on the property and pointed out that the structures, as well as the pig pens, are not listed in the gun range plans, or in the environmental reports submitted for the project. I asked Schlegel if the structures required permits.
“Pursuant to state law, one-story structures of 120 square feet or less do not require building permits,” Schlegel answered. “At the time the application for the Zone Amendment 13-007 was submitted, the structures in question were not identified by the planning division Staff who inspected the project site. Unless these structures are identified on the proposed conceptual development plan, they will not be permitted to remain if the proposal is approved.”
I told Schlegel that the CDFW had informed me it was illegal to capture and relocate wild pigs in California, and asked him if that would have an impact on Jones’ request for a zoning change.
“No formal complaints regarding the keeping of boars/pigs on the project site were filed with the county at the time this activity was alleged to have occurred,” Schlegel replied. “Therefore, the legality of this activity has not been evaluated.”
It’s apparently true that Jones wasn’t formally cited for allegedly importing the wild pigs at the time, but according to documents obtained by the Millville Plains landowners, an anonymous complaint about Jones’s wild pigs was filed in May, after A News Café first reported on the supervisor’s canned hunting operation.
Back in October 2019, Shasta County Animal Control recorded Banuelos’ complaint and Jones’s response, but no ticket or fine was issued to Jones. Even though the state trapper, a federal employee of the USDA/Forest Service, reportedly trapped and removed more than 100 feral pigs from DeMers and Hoffman’s property, I have so far been unable to determine how much it cost taxpayers to clean up Jones’ mess.
Schlegel did not respond when asked how much risk the threatened lawsuit by Millville Plains landowners poses to Shasta County. Informed that many of the landowners complained about how difficult it was to get their own smaller projects approved by the county, Schlegel noted that residential projects have more environmental requirements to meet in the sensitive wetlands area than a unique project such as Jones’ gun range, which is better able to mitigate impacts.
The planning division is currently waiting for responses to all of the substantive concerns raised by the Millville Plains landowners, including a detailed shot-fall report submitted by Navy veteran, engineer and self-educated shooting range expert Ed Wilkes that shows bullets fired from the proposed rifle ranges could reach as far north as Highway 44 if they stray off course, potentially endangering drivers and other passersby.
District 4 Supervisor Patrick Jones has been expressing his desire to build a first-class shooting sports center in Shasta County at least since the aughts when he served on the Redding City Council. He put a down payment on the land in 2010 and has been paying engineers and surveyors and working with the planning division since 2015. The dream that was once years away could be a matter of months from fruition.
But passing Zone Amendment 13-007 is no sure thing since Jones has to recuse himself from voting. There’s a high probability District 1 Supervisor Kevin Crye and District 5 Supervisor Chris Kelstrom will vote for the zoning change. But District 2 Supervisor Tim Garman and District 3 Supervisor Mary Rickert will vote against it, resulting in deadlock that could kill the project for now.
Schlegel told me that as long as an applicant can pay the fees to the planning division, it doesn’t matter if they don’t have the apparent wherewithal to, say, build a multi-million dollar state-of-the-art shooting gallery.
“It is common for applicants to seek and obtain funding necessary to develop their proposals after obtaining the required approvals; obtaining funding commitments is challenging in the absence of the required approvals,” Schlegel said. “Ultimately, if an applicant is unable to secure the necessary funding their proposal will not materialize.”
Translation: During an election season in which he faces a formidable challenger, District 4 Supervisor Patrick “Chair” Jones has more skin in the game than ever. Stand by for serious shenanigans.
And stay tuned for Part 2 of High Plains Grifter, in which the science behind the various environmental reports associated with the gun range project is evaluated.