I won’t joke about the escalating wild boar problem in Western Canada, because there really doesn’t seem to be anything to joke about. Boy, what a gnarly problem these feral pigs have become across most of Canada and several of the U.S. states. Of all the things farmers have to worry about, who thought wild boars would make the list?
They are prolific, nocturnal, potentially aggressive, will eat anything, can handle wide extremes in temperature and to cap off an almost indestructible profile, they are as smart as if not smarter than many humans. As soon as they perceive or encounter a threat such as a trap or other control measure the survivors warn the youngin’s who don’t fall for that trick again.
(There was one report of wildlife control officials tracking some radio-collared wild boars from a helicopter in winter, they hovered over a spot where the GPS signal was strongest but couldn’t see any boars. Even a guy in a truck on the ground couldn’t find the pigs. Eventually they realized the pigs had dug themselves into a snowbank to hide.)
I almost feel badly that about 25 years ago I wrote a story for Country Guide about what was then the enormous economic potential of farm raised wild boar meat. I travelled to one farm east of Edmonton to talk to a wild boar producer about what seemed like an unlimited meat market opportunity. Aside from needing a well-fenced pasture, they were easy-keeping animals that produced two litters per year, and the public was certainly interested in this lean, natural meat product. How could this plan go wrong? (I think, I hope, I closed the gate after that visit).
Here we are 25 years later and the opportunity has become a living nightmare certainly in some areas of Western Canada. Either the industrious pigs just escaped from their yards, or gates were purposely left open as meat market economics didn’t pan out — whatever way it went these pests are quickly spreading, some say “exploding,” into new territory every year.
Dr. Ryan Brook, a wildlife ecologist at the University of Saskatchewan is one voice sounding the alarm at the potential physical and economic damage wild boars could cause to agriculture and the Canadian economy. He says there needs to be a national strategy developed to control or eradicate wild boar and throwing a few thousand dollars here and there at the problem isn’t going to cut it.
“I would give a gold star to Alberta of all the provinces; they’re certainly the most proactive and they’re the only province with an actual action plan,” says Brook, in published reports.
“But everything Alberta tries to do is in jeopardy because Saskatchewan doesn’t have a strategy… With the lack of action in Saskatchewan, they’ll have no long-term meaningful success.”
Brook is considered a bit of an alarmist by some who say the problem isn’t that bad, but he maintains farmers and governments need to take this seriously.
“Unfortunately, we’re well on track right now to have more wild pigs than people in Saskatchewan,” says Brook. “We could easily support over a million pigs. We have about 1.1 million people in the province and we’re well on track to be more than that.”
From a smattering of sightings of escaped wild boar identified in 2000, large swaths of central and southern Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba are now the habitat for the ever-expanding wild boar numbers. Brook estimates the wild pigs will expand into another 80,000 square kilometres per year in Canada. That is a lot of bacon on the move.
Brook has a few concerns about the harm wild boars can release upon Canadian agriculture, but one of his greatest concerns is the impact on the domestic swine industry.
“The animals — whose population has mushroomed in the last decade on the Prairies — cause a host of problems,” Alexis Kienlen writes in Alberta Farmer Express. “But topping Ryan Brook’s list is their ability to spread diseases: Ones such as porcine epidemic diarrhea and porcine reproductive respiratory syndrome that are already present in Canada as well as ones carried by wild boars in the U.S. such as pseudo-rabies and swine brucellosis. But by far the biggest threat would be if wild pigs here somehow became infected with African swine fever, which has infected wild pig populations in Africa, Asia and parts of Europe,” said Brook.
Phil Abramenko, assistant provincial pest specialist with Alberta Agriculture, began a pilot project to develop a control strategy a few years ago. The counties in the pilot project, Lac Ste. Anne and Woodlands (in the Edmonton area), are where most of the wild pigs have been spotted.
“We are building a database of where wild boar at large are occurring in Alberta, so we can get a handle on the scope of the problem,” Abramenko, told Alberta Farmer Express.
“What we’re doing is building awareness and education concerning wild boar at large. We’re finding that the average Albertan is not aware that we have an issue with wild boar.”
Despite being nocturnal and very adept at hiding from humans, wild boars are increasingly making their presence known through sheer numbers.
“On average, on the Canadian Prairies, a female wild pig will have six young per litter and will have more than one litter per year,” said Brook.
The Alberta pilot project headed by Abramenko will be making recommendations on a permanent control program, with the goal of eradicating wild pigs in the province — although Brook said that will never happen unless Saskatchewan and Manitoba join the effort.
What about hunting?
Brook and Abramenko both told Alberta Farmer Express hunting is not a solution — and in fact makes the situation worse.
A group of wild boars, called a sounder, typically consists of adult sows and two age groups of juveniles born in the past year.
“If you shoot one or two out of a sounder, the rest will disperse and infest new areas,” said Abramenko. “They’ll go totally nocturnal because they’ve been educated, so that makes them harder to track or eradicate. They continue to have one or two litters a year.
“Hunting does nothing for eradication. It makes these animals more wary of humans and harder to trap.”
Although wild boars have yet to be found in Atlantic Canada, the Chronicle Herald in Halifax, Nova Scotia carried an interesting article on the no-nonsense hog control measures used in Texas.
Tackling the problem takes a multi-faceted approach because pigs are smart, Texas hog control expert Edward Dickey says.
“So, if you’re using single pig traps, for example, the older pigs will teach the younger pigs to be afraid of them,” says Dickey. “You’ve gotta really have an arsenal to combat these things; one single method will not work.”
The article says trapping is the best bet, using a camera to track the herd. Another strategy involves shooting pigs from a helicopter, and using dogs to track them down. Or even using a team of shooters to massacre an entire herd. Dickey likes to wait for night to fall, then take his team out with night-vision goggles and AR-15 rifles with thermal scopes.
Texas appears to have taken a no-nonsense, Wild West approach when it comes to “managing” wild boars. I’m not sure how well that plan would fly in Canada, however, a drastic situation may require drastic action.