Intelligent, resourceful wild hogs wreak havoc on the prairie

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Someone better tweet at Jason Isbell asking how to fix this if we don’t have assault rifles. Pedrik via Flickr

Are Judas pigs the answer?

Wild pigs are an invasive species that are a massive problem across many parts of the world – but in Saskatchewan, they have taken up a stronghold, and we are on track to see more wild pigs running around the province than people. The pigs cause issues for farmland, they can negatively affect ecosystems, and they also carry diseases that could profoundly impact Canada’s swine farming and our pork exportation.

Wild boar were brought to Canada in the 80s and 90s in an attempt to diversify farming practices. There was a foreseen large market for the animals, and farmers were also encouraged to crossbreed them with domestic pigs in order to produce larger animals. However, when the market for the pigs plateaued in 2001, a lot of the farms essentially went out of business. Some farmers let the pigs go; others simply escaped because of poorly built enclosures. In some instances, over 200 pigs were released at once, but the concern wasn’t great because many believed there was no way the pigs would survive the winter – but they proved resilient and started burrowing and sleeping in the snow.

“There are probably three major factors that make them so successful,” Says Dr. Ryan Brook of the Canadian Wild Pig Research Project.  “They have this incredibly broad diet, so they eat agricultural crops, they will eat amphibians, they’ll rip up the ground and eat roots and insect larva, and they might take down an adult whitetail deer. They will eat roadkill and any dead rotting things. They will gobble up any agricultural crops from potatoes to corn, they love corn, especially. And so they will eat almost anything.”

“And they also have this really insanely high reproductive rate,” Brook continued. “Wild pigs, the average litter is six. So they have a much, much, much higher reproductive rate. And in fact, they can have multiple litters per year. So, you know, you compare an elk of one per year to a wild pig where the average is 12. That’s a massive difference in reproductive rates. So multiple litters per year, and these animals are reproducing continuously across the year. So there’s no breeding season. There’s no birthing season. It’s just constantly, have young wean them off, get pregnant, have another bunch. And then the third one is that they’re highly mobile and incredibly intelligent. And so when they get shot at, they become nocturnal, they hide in heavy cover and they’re just really, really good at avoiding people. And so those combined make them one of the most successful invasive species on the planet, they’re living on all continents except Antarctica, and they spread rapidly. So they’re incredibly well adapted and caused tremendous environmental damage.”

In order to stop the spread of the pigs an open hunting season was declared, but it had the opposite of the intended effect. When the pigs began to get shot at, they did in fact become quite good at avoiding humans. Brook has recommended a toolbox approach to the problem as no single method will effectively deal with the ever-increasing issue. Such measures include helicopter capture and removal, using a judas pig to track and eliminate groups, and using trained extermination groups to eliminate entire founder groups at one time. The judas pig method involves capturing and tagging one pig, tracing them, and finding the larger groups as they are notoriously difficult to locate.

When asked why he thought the issue of wild pigs is once again gaining more media attention than it has in the past few years, even though it has been an ongoing issue, Brook said, “…there has been quite a dramatic increase in discussion about wild pigs in the last two years, and the major driver behind that as far as I can see is that African swine fever is a global crisis going on. It’s quite a major disease in Asia and Europe, and of course, Africa as well to a lesser degree, but it’s a swine only disease. So it’s not going to affect humans, but it does affect domestic pigs and treated domestic pigs, and so there have been many million domestic pigs killed in the last few years because of African swine fever. And the reality is if it came to Canada, I understand from, from experts that it would be catastrophic to our swine industry. Very similar if not worse than when we had BSE or mad cow disease. When we had one case in 2003 in Alberta, and that shut down every single border, and we couldn’t sell our cattle to any other country. That would be very similar kind of response with African swine fever and so that’s what’s raised the interest, unfortunately. It’s coming very late in the game where now we have missed that window to eradicate wild pigs in Canada, but we have the opportunity to reduce them dramatically. We have the opportunity to move them from large areas of the province, but there is a what we call, or I would refer to as, a wild pig stronghold in east central Saskatchewan that has a very, very high density of pigs, and they’re established over very rough country with the mix of lots of forest and wetlands and agriculture. So I do not believe is realistic to expect the eradication in that area.”

The Wild Pig Research project maintains a Facebook page that contains information and videos of the group tracking, capturing and working the pigs. It also includes access to a Google Earth file that maps the distribution and number of wild pigs across Canada, specifically in Saskatchewan and Alberta, where they have been a massive problem.

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