In the 1980s, wild boars were introduced in Alberta as a new livestock option to help diversify agriculture.
This was to help grow pig sizes as well as increasing the sounder size.
"We purposely cross-bred them with the domesticated pigs, so we get an even larger animal, and we also get this super charged reproductive rate that now these hybrids are having six young per litter, on average. And they reproduce continuously," explains Dr. Ryan Brook, professor at the University of Saskatchewan in the College of Agriculture and Bioresources. "So, they are having young year-round. There's no seasons to it, and a mature female can certainly have two litters per year, and possibly more."
And sows can reach reproductive maturity as young as six months old.
Not only are these new pigs bigger, and giving birth more frequently, but they received the most beneficial traits from both breeds.
"That worked well for production, but unfortunately, it created what we call Super-pigs. These hybrids, which now have all of the best of both of these breeds and create an incredibly successful invasive species. And indeed, we do consider wild pigs to be the worst invasive large mammal on the planet," Brook says.
As it goes, over the years, many escaped their enclosures, causing severe damage to both agricultural lands and natural areas.
And because they are hybrids with wild boars, these new hybrids have all the desired traits that allow them to survive in the Canadian wilderness with ease.
In fact, one could argue that they have thrived.
"To be really clear, wild pigs are spreading completely out of control across the Canadian prairies, as we speak," explains Brook. He adds that feral swine are estimated to have spread out enough to cover over one million square kilometres in Canada. Which is larger than many countries across the world.
"This is exactly what pigs do anywhere on Earth where they have been put. Australia, they were imported into Australia. Australia has, probably, more than 17 million wild pigs. They were imported into the United States. And the US has probably very close to 7 million animals," Book explains. "Anywhere these things have been introduced, they expand their population rapidly, their numbers explode, and they do incredible damage to ecosystems and to agriculture, they are the worst."
In May of 2008, wild boars were included in the Agricultural Pest Act and the Pest and Nuisance Control Regulation as pests. Pursuant to the legislation, landowners became obliged to prevent these pests from becoming established on their land.
Feral swine are capable of causing significant property and crop damage, harassing and preying upon livestock, and can act as a repository for various diseases that are transferable to humans and livestock.
"You can imagine a pig weighing 3, 4, 5, 600 plus pounds, and often these animals are in groups, called a sounder group. We have seen sounder groups that weigh as much as an F-150 pickup truck. You can just imagine how much grain and other crops they can destroy very, very quickly and cause huge amounts of damage," explains Brook.
Every year, an estimated $2.5 billion of agricultural damage is done by wild boars in the United States alone. Unfortunately, there is no data on damage done by wild boars in Canada.
Wild boars also prey on small animals and birds, harass larger wild animals until they have left the area, cause erosion along riparian zones, contaminate bodies of water, and cause extensive damage to native vegetation.
Swine are known to be very opportunistic and intelligent.
They are capable of learning about, and responding to, human activities.
According to the 2017 report Eradication of Wild Boar-at-Large: Strategy Document from the Alberta government, current hunting control methods are ineffective.
"Current hunting control methods are problematic as they are sporadic and selective which allows the broader wild boar population to become elusive and wary complicating further control or eradication efforts," the document reads.
For instance, when only a couple boars out of a sounder are hunted, the rest of the herd learns how to avoid hunters in the future. They do so by dispersing from the area, changing their movement patterns, and become nocturnal.
The surviving boars then pass this information down to following generations, making it even more difficult to eliminate these pests. Especially since each sow can have on average, 12 piglets a year.
Yet, the province of Alberta still has a bounty on wild pigs, encouraging people to hunt these beasts.
"Alberta is the only jurisdiction to have a bounty and I think we can agree that the bounty's been a complete failure," says Brook. "Bounties are generally unsuccessful, and in some cases like this, can actually make the problem worse."
Dr. Brook has spent the past fourteen years trying to educate people on the ineffectiveness of bounties.
"The government of Alberta made a very serious mistake implementing that bounty and I like to hope that it won't be renewed next year," Brook explains.
On top of Alberta's bounty, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba all have an open hunting season for feral swine, where there are no bag limits, no licenses required, and people can hunt them 365 days a year.
"I think that if a government was to try and demonstrate they were really serious about dealing with the wild pig issue, then one of the things that they would do is not have bounties. And if they had them, they'd get rid of them and certainly they would get rid of open season hunting very quickly. And that would be a really key indicator of a government that's super serious at addressing this. Let's make no mistake, this is indeed a crisis," Brook says.
"I think we also have to make our peace, now, and recognize that wild pigs are a permanent part of the landscape, that we've dramatically missed the window of opportunity to eradicate them. I think there's still quite a few people pretending that we can still eradicate, and we've simply missed that window by quite a long shot, actually," Brooks explains. He adds that we now have to learn to live with them and give up the nonsensical dream of fully eradicating them.
Brooks says that it is possible to make southern Alberta completely pig free, but the first steps include getting rid of the open hunting season and the bounty.
After that, it's best to use helicopters to help capture and relocate entire sounders out of the area, so they don't spread apart and join other sounders.
But no provincial government in Canada seems to take this crisis seriously enough to start using this method.
Wild pigs across the Canadian Prairies are now expanding completely out of control.
"Unfortunately, that's exactly what I've been predicting for the last 14 years, and I've been warning and saying, 'This is what's coming!' And it gives me no joy say that I've been 100 per cent right on this," Brook explains.
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