Ruth Kost has never seen a wild boar before but she’s hoping that will change after a summer spent tracking the elusive beast.
“They don’t like to show themselves,” said the University of Saskatchewan master’s student. “They are kind of reclusive, they avoid people… and they’re very aware of hunting pressures.”
But just because you don’t see something, it doesn’t mean it’s not there.
And so Kost is hopping into a rental truck and heading across Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba to speak to people who have seen wild boars, visit sites where damage has been caused by the animals and make contact with hunters and locals who have knowledge of feral pig populations.
“It’s a means of collecting scientific data, it’s just not the usual way,” she said, explaining the habits of wild boars make conventional tracking difficult. So instead of laying eyes on them directly, the researcher will be relying on first-hand accounts and anecdotal evidence.
Kost’s academic supervisor has seen plenty of the largely nocturnal animals, but not without going to great lengths. Recently, he embarked on Canada’s first feral pig radio collar program in the hopes of establishing their patterns, habitats and potential spread.
It wasn’t easy though.
“We were hoping to capture them on the ground with traps and collar them that way, but it was not particularly successful,” said assistant University of Saskatchewan professor, Ryan Brook. “They are incredibly smart and adaptable animals, so we didn’t trap a single one. We had to bring in a helicopter and capture them using a net gun fired out of the helicopter.”
In the the end, Brook’s team was able to collar five wild pigs in Saskatchewan’s Moose Mountain Provincial Park last March. The next phase of the project will focus on animals in and around the Turtle and Duck Mountain areas.
“We’re looking at southeast Saskatchewan and southwestern Manitoba,” he said, adding invasive species don’t respect borders.
It’s that lack of respect that prompted the United States Department of Agriculture to fund Kost’s research.
The wild boar population in the U.S. is significantly larger and more established than that in Canada, and officials there are concerned their efforts to control feral pigs could be complicated by new populations moving south.
“In the U.S. they were introduced when they were brought over by early explorers in the 1500s, and they have pretty much had feral populations since then,” Kost said.
Canada has only dealt with wild boars since the 1990s following a failed attempt at diversifying livestock operations in the western provinces.
“They were able to escape the pens, and in some cases the farmers would actually let them go, because it wasn’t a really lucrative business. So that’s how our wild boar population got started,” she said.
But without management, both researchers said it would be possible for Canada’s feral pig population to continue to grow.
“I think it’s certainly something we need to keep an eye on,” said Manitoba’s chief veterinarian, Dr. Megan Bergman. “We know that these feral pigs are quite resilient and they do quite well in the wild environment. They are able to reproduce successfully and stay in good body condition, so the possibility of their number increasing is definitely there, and we’ve seen that the U.S. is struggling with this in many of its states.”
Carriers of disease
Wild pigs can also play host to dozens of viral and bacterial disease, although there has been no documented cases of domestic swine being infected as a result of contact with wild boars.
“My concerns would likely be around the outdoor-housed pigs we have in Manitoba, because there is a higher potential risk of contact in those cases,” said Bergman. “From a commercial perspective, because of the high level of biosecurity we have, we are likely not at anywhere near the same risk level, but certainly there is always a concern.”
Even greater than the risk to biosecurity is the risk to the environment and agricultural crops.
“They cause extreme damage,” said Brook. “Not only do they feed a lot, but unlike other animals, a white-tailed deer for example, boars are a rooting species, so it doesn’t look like an animal has just come and fed… boars will knock all the corn down, rip up all the roots and it will look like a Rototiller went through.”
But because feral pigs are largely nocturnal feeders, farmers and landowners may be left to guess at what caused damage the following morning. And identifying the culprit can be tricky.
Brook said boar damage is often attributed to other species, like elk, deer, or even black bears. It’s only by installing trail cameras, which are motion activated, that the true culprit is revealed.
“I think a lot of people are unaware of the presence of boars, and from what we’ve heard talking to a lot of producers is that there is probably a lot more damage that is being done than is currently being recorded, because they aren’t seen and aren’t known that well,” said the supervising professor.
Manitoba doesn’t track wild boar numbers, but a government official said that there have been reports of damage to crops at Poplar Bluff just east of Portage la Prairie and cornfields north of Cypress River/Holland.
The entire province has also been designated a wild boar control area, meaning boars can be killed during legal shooting hours anywhere in the province, seven days a week and without bag limits. However, hunters must still obtain permission from landowners to enter private property.
It’s a necessary step, but one that can make researching the animals more difficult.
“There is always the possibility that we collar an animal and then a hunter shoots it, which of course they have the right to do. But from a research standpoint, it makes for an unusual situation,” said Brook. However, all five of the boars collared so far remain alive and very active.
Both he and Kost hope that by the end of the summer, they will have a better idea of where boar populations are located, how they behave and what type of habitat they might frequent.
“The main goal is to create a distribution map,” said Kost. “Because it’s important that if further management is needed with this species that we know where they are, so we can make strategies, or even go out where they are and kill them if that’s the management goal.”
Anyone who has seen a wild boar is invited to contact Kost at [email protected] to share their own observations.
It’s locals that will be my “eyes and ears,” Kost said.