Michael Hicks likes to talk about wildlife. The Glaslyn-area farmer still chuckles about the time he watched a black bear stand as high as it could on its hind legs, longing for out-of-reach oats in a grain truck.
But just after Thanksgiving, Hicks’ game camera recorded something new in his pasture near Thunderchild Reserve, in northwestern Saskatchewan. There, licking minerals at his deer blind, were several wild boars.
Over the next few weeks, the sounder of swine returned to Hick’s deer blind several times. They appeared at night a few times, but they tended to favour the day, especially between 4:00 and 5:30 p.m., Hicks said.
One day, Hicks was setting out bait for the deer when the pigs appeared. He managed to shoot one before the rest scattered. A few days later, Hicks was in his deer blind when the sounder returned, and he shot a second pig. Since then, the game camera has caught one lone pig returning to the deer blind periodically. Hicks think it lost its buddies in their mad scramble to escape, and returns to the deer blind hoping to reunite with them.
Hicks had the pigs butchered. One sow had one to two inches of fat all the way round, just like a finished pig, he says. The butcher even got a few slabs of bacon off her belly, which is rare for a wild pig, he added. On a related note, neighbouring farmers had suspected the pigs of eating their standing corn and ripping into a grain bag of CPS wheat.
Despite his appreciation for wildlife, Hicks isn’t thrilled to have feral wild boar in the area.
“It’s kind of a novelty at first, but knowing the problem that they cause, it would be nice to get them taken care of one way or another.”
Much the same all over
Hicks isn’t the only one who would like to see the feral wild boars “taken care of.” Many western Canadian producers share his sentiment.
Feral pigs are notorious for harassing livestock. They also carry disease. A recent study of Saskatchewan’s feral population found a new strain of A. pleuropneumoniae, a highly contagious and deadly disease in pigs.
The swine also damage crops and wildlife habitat in their quest for plant roots, tubers, and invertebrates. Graduate student Ruth Kost says crop damage looks like a “huge rototiller” has been in the field.
Kost, an animal science student at the University of Saskatchewan, spent her summer mapping feral wild boar populations in Western Canada. She drove about 15,000 kilometres to interview conservation officers, biologists, and other wildlife professionals in Alberta, B.C., and Manitoba.
Kost still plans to talk to wildlife professionals in Saskatchewan and the eastern half of the country. She’ll also be surveying a random sample of the rural population.
Kost says feral wild boars are present in every western Canadian province. B.C.’s pig problem is less acute than the rest of the west. Alberta’s pigs tend to be segregated to the north, she says, while Manitoba’s are in the south. In Saskatchewan, they’re found in the south and as far north as Prince Albert.
Saskatchewan’s wild boars were originally imported from European breeding stock, says Kost. They were used to supply hunt farms and diversified livestock operations. A call to Saskatchewan Crop Insurance confirmed that people can still import wild boar.
And wild boars are still escaping from game farms, Kost says. She adds that researchers don’t yet know how far a feral population will spread in Canada.
“There are studies from Europe and the States but it’s so different because they have such denser human populations,” she says. Researchers are now collaring feral pigs in southeastern Saskatchewan so they can track their movements and dispersal rates, she says.
Kost hopes to start analyzing data from her study this spring so she can create maps. She hopes her maps will help the Saskatchewan government ramp up a province-wide eradication program.
To hunt or not to hunt
Short of actually seeing wild boars, producers will have to look for other signs of the elusive animals. Kost says the rototiller-like damage is the most obvious marker. Tracks basically look like deer or elk tracks, with large dewclaws in the back, she says. Observant landowners might spot their nests in the winter. Kost says they build nests out of cattails and grasses near water bodies.
But even if producers know they have a problem, they have few control options.
Hicks says he’s been getting calls from hunters interested in bagging a boar or two, but he’s not too interested in guiding them. He’s noticed the animals are extremely hard to hunt — they’re wilder than deer, he says.
And it turns out that trying to control the population through sport hunting may do more harm than good.
Sows can rear two litters a year, with four to twelve piglets per litter. That rapid reproduction rate makes sport hunting ineffective. Plus the survivors seem to learn, and change their activity patterns, Kost says.
“They’re extremely nocturnal, they’re more elusive. So if you are going to hunt them, you just have to make sure that you kill them,” says Kost.
Plus, wild boars still fall under the Stray Animals Act. Technically, they are supposed to be treated more like loose livestock than nuisance animals such as coyotes, says Dan Baber, who handles feral boar calls for Saskatchewan Crop Insurance. Baber says the Ministry of Environment is trying to have them classified as nuisance animals.
For now, wild boars roam in a legal grey area. Hunters should check with their local rural municipalities and landowners before stalking the swine.
Surviving and thriving
Since cells of wild boars began their great escapes, they’ve proven very competent survivors. After seeing the pigs close up, Hicks isn’t surprised they’re thriving. He noted they have a thick coat of hair. And although there are wolves where he pastures his cattle, he’s not sure the pigs would face many serious predators.
While Hicks only saw about a dozen pigs, he’s worried about the long-term consequences of the renegade swine. He already has problems with deer, ravens, and elk ripping grain bags. And his pasture is in rough country, with plenty of coulees, bush and a river to provide cover.
“We’ve never had a pig problem yet, but this could be the beginning of it.”
Producers with any photos of or information on wild boar sightings can contact Ruth Kost at 306-227-0998 or by emailing [email protected]. Photos, trail cam locations, and other information will be kept confidential.