It’s time to up our efforts in the battle against wild pigs, according to a leading voice in the field.
Ryan Brook of the University of Saskatchewan has spent years studying the rise of the invasive species in Western Canada, and has also spent years raising the alarm.
He has watched as sounders — the proper name for a group of swine — show up more and more often on trail cameras. Photos have become more frequent. Stories of hunter encounters and farm damage — damage that is infamous in places like the southern United States — have grown from spotty anecdotes to a more steady flow.
“These wild pigs are expanding very rapidly across the Canadian Prairies,” he said.
Manitoba and Saskatchewan are at the forefront of that fight, according to his team. Brook estimated about 90 per cent out of the decades’ worth of wild pig instances he and his team have recorded across Canada come from these two provinces.
Why it matters: From trampled crops to torn-up turf and disease concerns, wild pigs cost the U.S. at least $1.5 billion every year in damage and control. Researchers here warn against letting our own wild pig problems get to a similar scope.
In a landmark study published in 2019, Brook and grad student Ruth Aschim tracked the regions of Western Canada showing signs of wild pigs.
Wild pig range had shown a sharp increase between 1990-2017, the study reported, particularly in both Saskatchewan and Manitoba. In both provinces range growth had accelerated after 2010 compared to the decade before.
Now, Brook suggests, some areas of Western Canada might already be past the point where “pig free” is possible, and it may instead be time to look at different control zones within the provinces.
“We have these hot spots, or what we would refer to as strongholds of pigs, and I think that’s what we’re also concerned about,” he said.
The concern, he said, is that those strongholds may form the nucleus of wild pig expansion to neighbouring areas.
“That’s what you see in southwestern Manitoba,” he said. “You look in that Spruce Woods area, and that’s where there’s hundreds and hundreds of pigs concentrated in there, and they’re reproducing at six young per litter, multiple litters per year… and they have this incredible ability to move.”
Those animals can easily move 25 kilometres in a day, he noted.
Brook’s updated numbers suggest a growing number of municipalities in the Prairies are dealing with the invasive species, and at greater concentrations.
Maps published by Brook in early 2021, which break down the historical accumulated wild pig instances by municipality, show a rash of municipalities registering a “high” level of wild pig evidence, particularly in the northeast region of agro-Saskatchewan and southwest Manitoba.
Anything from one to 20 occurrences was considered “low,” Brook said, while municipalities with anywhere from 21 to 50 occurrences was considered “medium.” Municipalities clocking over 50 occurrences, meanwhile, were mapped as “high.”
In Manitoba, the RM of Glenboro-South Cypress and RM of Victoria both recorded the highest instances of wild pigs in the province, equal to some hot zones in eastern Saskatchewan. For the rest of Manitoba, those occurrences remain more sporadic, although evidence of wild pigs trends thicker in the southwest and into the northern Interlake and Parkland.
In 2018, Brook’s team caught “over 1,000” instances of wild pigs on camera in southwestern Manitoba, he later told the Co-operator, although it was difficult to say how many of those were repeat images of the same animal.
While efforts in those “stronghold” areas may focus on managing numbers and reducing the impact of wild pigs, eradication efforts might be better refocused to areas where instances are still low, he said.
“For example, around the Winnipeg area and that, there have been pretty sporadic sightings, so if there’s effort made to contain those, a large part of Manitoba can be made pig free or become pig free and stay that way, as long as they’re on it,” he said. “Whether they’ll be able to actually get rid of those pigs in the southwest, is now, I think, we’re probably in the range where we’re too late.”
State of the fight
Jenelle Hamblin, manager of swine health programs for the Manitoba Pork Council, says their organization has been working with local wildlife associations to help manage the program.
“We have committed funding to assist in those efforts,” she said. “It’s kind of on a year-by-year basis, but our board of directors absolutely considers this issue to be of importance.”
In 2019, the pork council partnered with a wildlife association in western Manitoba for a targeted campaign around the Spruce Woods area. The council funded the volunteer program for traps and equipment, although the program later reported issues with lack of appropriate manpower and the need for full-time labour.
The council backed similar programs in 2020 and will again this year.
“The majority of the focus we’ve been working on involves trapping, so looking to trap larger groups, or sounders if you will, of animals,” Hamblin said.
As far as invasive species go however, wild pigs are notoriously difficult to control. They’re elusive, experts note — smart, adaptable, quick to reproduce and hardy.
Provincial hunting rules in Manitoba allow any hunter to take a wild pig at any time of year, although experts, including those from the pork council and Brook himself, have warned that sport hunting may actually spread the problem. Any surviving pig out of a sounder will scatter and reproduce, potentially becoming the source of a new, and more wary sounder in a new area.
The province may also be taking a cue from a centralized reporting system out of the U.S.
The Squeal on Pigs campaign, as seen in states such as Montana, operates a wild pig hotline that records and distributes wild pig sightings from the public to the appropriate officials.
“The report goes through a process and ends up with an investigator who goes and checks it out and if it is determined to be a feral swine, they eradicate it or the sounder,” Montana Invasive Species Council co-ordinator Stephanie Criswell said.
The results of the investigation then come back around to whoever made the initial report, she noted.
The campaign also doubles as public outreach around the impacts of wild swine, Criswell said.
Manitoba may be adopting “some aspects,” of the campaign, according to an email response from Manitoba Agriculture and Resource Development.
The province has also not closed the door to control zones, such as those suggested by Brook. The province is currently reviewing its wild pig management strategy, the email noted.
“The province has a growing concern regarding wild pigs due to their negative impacts to ecological and agricultural resources, as well as spread of disease… We do want to recognize the support and work of wildlife groups and other collaborators that are using recognized, permitted methods to control wild pigs in their areas,” the statement read.
Control efforts might well see more impact with more resources, Hamblin said, although she noted that organizations spearheading the fight — including her own — are working the best they can within their means.
Brook, meanwhile, is once again on the hunt for resources to continue his work.
The amount of data now collected will allow for better predictions, Brook noted, although his project is “sort of dead in the water,” currently due to lack of funding.
The Saskatchewan researcher has gained grassroots traction through the Canadian Wild Pig Research Project, however. The online resource disseminates information on current projects, wild pig outreach and media articles to the public.
Most recently, Brook has got traffic from downloadable and interactive maps of his most recent wild pig occurrence data, broken down by municipality.
“We have all of this data to show us where animals are, so we put it all together into a single map and people wanted access not only to the data, but to be able to look at it a little bit closer and see, not only where the pigs are, but what kind of habitats might be best to go look for them for hunters, for example,” he said.
There is also need to get actual wild pig population estimates, he added. While Brook’s work has attempted to keep a pulse on pig range and a general idea of concentration, actual population estimates are vague at best, experts have noted.
The researcher would see trail cameras used to try and get some of those numbers.
Mapping updates, such as those recently published through the Canadian Wild Pig Research Project, also needs to be done every year, he argued.
“That’s how you can track whether we’re having success or failure,” he said. “The space of distribution and the occurrences and ideally, if there were actions implemented to control them, you would start to see that map change.”
Along with his mapping efforts, Brook has worked with control efforts featuring extensive ground trapping, and use of aircraft. Helicopters, in particular have shown great success, he noted.
“It’s expensive, but the reality is that if you don’t invest in dealing with pigs, then you’re going to pay dearly in terms of crop damage and in terms of environmental impact, in terms of potential disease spread,” Brook said.