Wild pigs wreak havoc, threaten livestock across western Canada

[PHOTO COURTESY: Wild Hog Watch]

Despite declaring open season on feral pigs, herds of wild swine are continuing to wreak havoc on crops and private property in British Columbia, as well as several other western provinces.

The feral pigs, native to areas of Europe, Asia and North Africa, are the ancestors of escaped pigs brought to Canada and domesticated for farming purposes. The animals live in large family packs and can grow in size up to 200 kilograms, with females producing litters of up to 10 piglets several times a year.

“They can do a lot of damage to crops, hayfields, fences; they uproot seedlings and make a big mess of the land,” Gail Wallin, executive director of the Invasive Species Council of British Columbia, tells Yahoo Canada News.

This week in Richmond, 150 North American experts are gathered for the Invasive ​Species ​Council ​of ​British Columbia’s ​public ​forum ​and annual general meeting. Participants from governmental, scientific and environmental fields are expected to discuss threats to the province’s diverse ecosystems, and feral pigs are on the agenda.

The pigs, which are known to be aggressive and will charge and gore when threatened, are responsible for destroyed crops, injured livestock and a negatively impacted local environment, according to the province. They feed on the eggs of ground-nesting birds and small mammals and are thought to carry a variety of diseases, including salmonella and several other viruses that sicken livestock.

“They get into wetlands, they cause tremendous impacts on species at risk and endangered species,” says Ryan Brook, a biologist at the University of Saskatchewan, who has been studying the animals for several years.

“They’re especially damaging not only because they’ll eat pretty much anything, but also because they’re a rooting species. They actually rip up the ground and dig out the roots, so their damage becomes much more intensive and long term.”

In July 2014, in an attempt to curb the feral pig population, the B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations announced that it had added the pigs to the Schedule C of invasive species, a move that allowed any licensed hunter to hunt them anytime and anywhere in the province.

That policy, however, does not seem to have greatly impacted the number of new populations and no one from the ministry was immediately available to comment.

“It’s only when they start to get more populous that people start to notice their impact,” Wallin says. She contends that while the number of feral pigs in B.C. is relatively low, now is the time for the province to proactively address the issue before the population explodes.

“When you get an invasive species in its early phase you have a much better chance of eradicating it,” she adds.

Wild pig populations are well-established in the central B.C. Interior and recent reports indicate new populations are expanding into the northeast Interior and southern Vancouver Island.

Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Ontario also grapple with the pigs. Because the creatures are most active in the evening and early morning, concrete data on the number of wild pigs in each province are hard to come by.

In 2014, however, Brook raised alarm when he published a study that predicted that if left unchecked, the number of wild boars in that province would soon outstrip the number of people. Saskatchewan, home to 1.1 million, has confirmed wild boars in at least 70 of 296 rural municipalities.

“They can be very aggressive. We do know people in North America who have been seriously injured by these pigs,” Brook says. His department at the University of Saskatchewan is currently conducting a new survey of the wild boar population in the province.

“Their best comparison is to rats, except they’re huge rats that can weigh up to 500 pounds.”

Some western provinces have been particularly aggressive in their quest to eradicate herds. In 2008, Alberta declared wild boars a pest and introduced a bounty on animals caught in the wild. Hunters can earn $50 per pair of wild boar ears, and the program has been extended through 2017. Manitoba was declared a wild pig control zone in 2001, and any resident is permitted to kill wild boar at any time almost anywhere in the province.

However, not all Canadians want to see the pigs eliminated. A petition urging B.C. forestry minister Steve Thomson to disallow the hunting of feral pigs closed in March 2015 just short of its needed 65,000 signatures.

“I am disgusted to be a Canadian with this irresponsible, cruel and ignorant government official who does nothing but promote senseless and cruel violence to animals,” wrote Dallas E., creator of the petition. Dallas was not immediately available for comment when contacted by Yahoo Canada News.

In the United States, burgeoning wild pig populations have spread disease and caused billions in damage. A 2006 E. coli outbreak where three people died and hundreds were sickened was the result of feral pigs tracking bacteria onto spinach fields in California.

The pigs are such a scourge several websites and Facebook groups have been set up to track them. Wild Hog Watch, run by the Wildlife Ecology & Community Engagement Lab at the University of Saskatchewan, posts stories, videos and articles about the animals and offers a place for users to report sightings. On WildboarCanada.ca, users can also share tips and report sightings to better help hunters track and euthanize herds.

“We’re really interested in sightings from all over Canada,” says Brook, who runs the Wild Hog Watch Facebook group. “One of our projects right now is trying to get a handle on the distribution of feral pigs in Canada, so any and all sightings from anywhere in Canada we’re very keen to get.”