By Chelsea Kemp, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The Westman Naturalists hosted University of Saskatchewan Prof. Ryan Brook on Feb. 18 for a special Zoom talk about the potential environmental devastation posed by the spread of invasive wild pig species in Manitoba.
During the webinar, “Ecology of Invasive Wild Pigs on the Canadian Prairie,” Brook provided insights into his research of tracking the rapid spread of invasive wild pigs in Spruce Woods and across Canada.
He described wild pigs as “highly invasive,” free-ranging animals that include wild boar, hybrids or wild boar-domestic pigs, pot-bellied pigs and feral domestic pigs.
“There are no native pigs in Canada, so anything you see running around that looks like a pig and oinks like a pig is indeed introduced, and indeed invasive,” Brook said.
The introduction of the species began in the 1980s under a push to diversify agriculture, leading to ranches popping up on the Prairies and the introduction of domestic wild boar farms.
At the industry’s height, Statistics Canada reported 500 farms and more than 32,000 animals were in the country, with many located in the Prairies.
“A lot of work, time and energy were put into bringing these wild boar, domestic wild boar, to be raised on primarily meat farms,” Brook said. “Manitoba did ban these quite some time ago, but other provinces have had and still have these so-called high fence shoot operations.”
The boars were imported from Europe and raised on farms, but the market never really took off, and the growth of the industry proved to be unsustainable.
The first documented cases of pigs escaping were recorded in 1995. The animals finding their way into the wild was magnified in 2001 when the wild boar market peaked, and many farmers cut the fence and let them go assuming they would be unable to survive the harsh Prairie winters.
“We’ve documented cases all across Canada of cutting fences and letting dozens and in some cases more than 200 at a time-released out onto the landscape,” Brook said. “If you ever do have one cross your path, you know for sure that it came from a farm.”
There has been an exponential increase in wild pigs. They first became visible around 2010 and have continued to spread. There were less than 500 reported in 2010, but by 2020 reported sightings had increased to more than 2,000.
In Canada, 58 per cent of occurrences of wild pigs have been reported in the last five years, Brook added, noting a proper count of the animals has not yet been undertaken in Canada.
The highest reported pig counts are in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, with the greatest number of wild pigs located along the provinces’ borders.
Brook noted the pigs have been spotted in Spruce Woods, Deloraine, Boissevain, the Brandon Hills and Turtle Mountains.
It is difficult to estimate the true number of wild pigs in the province because they are hard to spot, and typically the only telltale signs they are present in an ecosystem is the trail of destruction they leave in their wake.
The pigs destroy the ecosystem by digging and foraging. Brook described the animals as a rototiller when looking at the damage they create.
“We often refer to these things as an ecological train wreck. They’re quite damaging and really, really bad in all sorts of ways,” Brook said. “They literally feed on everything — they eat all manner of vegetation and roots and insects and fish when they can get them. They are truly omnivorous and eat just about anything and live in any kind of habitat.”
In the United States alone, the invasive species creates about US$2.5 billion in crop damage each year.
Brook noted they have done collaring, releasing a pig and tracking its movements via GPS satellite in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Cameras have also been placed in Spruce Woods and the Turtle Mountains, and citizen scientists send in photos of the pigs for research.
Manitoba has been very proactive when it comes to controlling the spread of animals.
“Very early on, I believe it was ’91, Manitoba declared the whole province a wild boar control zone. They were going out and removing wild pigs,” Brook said. “That’s very notable in the whole context of this that Manitoba should be given credit for getting on that early and being very, very proactive.”
However, as of 2022 they have been singularly unsuccessful in eradicating the animals for any area, Brook said. At this point, the window on eradication of the species in Canada is closing if not already shut.
“If Canada gets real serious, real fast and starts to remove these pigs, then I think we could get ahead of them and we could potentially remove them. We’ve passed the point of eradication we’ve missed the window,” Brook said. “There are big areas of Manitoba. For example, if you said we want to make everything east of Winnipeg pig-free I would say absolutely, highly doable.”
In the last two years, there has been a transformation in approaching the wild pigs, and the animals are being recognized as a threat — but there is an increasingly rising cost to get ahead of their spread.
One of the more productive options is to find areas of focus for eradication with fewer pigs, he said, but regions like Spruce Woods would be a bigger undertaking.
As of now, there is no provincial strategy for the control of wild pigs in Saskatchewan or Manitoba, and there is no national strategy to control them from expanding out of control. Brook estimates the overall spread of the pigs currently occupies one million square kilometres.
There are options to control the spread of the animals, including sports hunting, trapping and collaring. Brook said a combination of bait trapping and tracing a “Judas Pig” to a large sounder to eradicate the group are some of the more productive options.
“We simply can’t barbecue our way out of a wild pig problem,” Brook said. “The cornerstone with all invasive species is … you have to be quick and you have to be aggressive in your response.”
Visit Canadian Wild Pig Research Project on Facebook for more information.
This item is reprinted with permission from Brandon Sun, Manitoba. See article HERE.
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