Time running out to eradicate wild pigs

Date posted: January 10, 2020

Ryan Brook

Ryan Brook

He's part farm boy, a big part researcher with a liberal dose of gunslinger thrown in.

Ryan Brook had a potentially tough role as he closed the 2020 Banff Pork Seminar. He stood between delegates getting an early start on the road home or the evening social time ahead. It didn't take long for him to establish his territory. His pork industry audience sat spellbound.

"More than 700 delegates who came here to talk about managing pigs inside the fence," he told delegates. "I'm the only one who came here to talk pigs outside the fence."

Brook, a University of Saskatchewan wildlife researcher has spent more time than anyone in the country studying the challenge of wild pigs. His message is starkly straightforward. Wild pigs are an ecological disaster. The problem is exploding; people have no idea of how bad and widespread it is. There is nowhere near enough leadership being shown at any level. Time is quickly running out on the ability to eradicate the problem.

Good intentions gone wrong

The feral wild boar problem started back in the 80s when farmers were being encouraged to diversify in a wide variety of ways. The pigs escaped or were released into the wild as the economics of that industry faltered.

Brook uses the term wild pigs because wild boars have crossed or been crossed with domestic pigs. That means larger litter size, bigger animals. Brook and cohorts have seen animals weighing several hundred pounds.

In the wild these animals travel in groups called "sounders" run by a matriarch female who will have control over several generations of offspring. Males travel alone and move across the landscape in search of females to breed. Sounders are increasing in size dramatically.

Wild pigs are incredibly smart and elusive. One reason they are growing is that they are incredibly well fed, he says. Grain storage bags for example are easily accessed.

There are many myths about wild pig control, says Brook, one of the biggest being that populations can be controlled by sport hunting. "We will not barbeque out this problem," he told his audience. "If anything, sport hunting increases the problem. Wild pigs scatter and more groups are formed as a result."

International control effort

Brook's wild pig research efforts are funded in large part by the United States Department of Agriculture with support slowly growing from Canadian partners. But there is no doubt he feels the frustration of a seeming lack of interest from across the landscape in Canada.

He talks openly, warmly and with wry humor about the challenges of that, and speaks like a new sheriff trying to control, to bring common sense to Wild West territory. Judging by the reaction of his audience, he has support for the job.

"A year ago I thought African Swine Fever would have driven a whole new level of renewed interest in the wild pig problem," says Brook "They are an ecological disaster. The habitat damage is huge. They will literally eat anything."

But he adds interest and support has not really increased.

Brook has a checklist of what he sees is needed to make progress on wild pig control.

  • Leadership. "There's a real vacuum here and no one is saying let's go kill these pigs. It's a big deal and nobody is getting on board."
  • Research and monitoring.
  • Judas Pig track and kill control: Capturing a whole sounder, killing all but one, putting a tracking collar and releasing that animal to lead them to other sounders. "It's very effective."
  • Whole sounder removal. "Can be nothing less."
  • Policy changes regarding land access.
  • Disease testing.
  • On-farm risk assessment and mitigation. "Do some test cameras as a cheap and easy way to get started."
  • Do not support hunting. "You cannot eradicate wild pigs with sport hunting."
  • Trapping.
  • Get wild boar farms under control.

"No one of these points alone will solve the wild pig problem," says Brook. "It will take a comprehensive plan."

What will it cost asked an audience member?

"Not sure," answered Brook. "Bloody expensive. Hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of dollars. One thing is sure. Ever year you wait it gets more expensive."