An approach called the Moose Mountain strategy hinges on identifying a group of pigs and killing every single member
Bob Brickley’s team has pored over aerial surveillance data, drawn up a detailed plan of attack and possesses extensive knowledge of their target’s behaviour.
War games? A Call of Duty video game scenario? Nope.
Brickley of the Moose Mountain eradication team has outlined these as key factors to success in bringing down the population of wild pigs — one of the Prairies’ most prolific and destructive invasive species.
“We will approach (the nest) with the wind in our favour and we usually send three guys with shotguns into the nest,” said Brickley.
“Then we have a few men out to the flank so if something does get away, we have a chance to get it and then we’ll usually put a second line of defence up on ridges ahead of where the wild pigs always go.”
The problems with these mixed breed “wild pigs,” which the Moose Mountain team is going to such great lengths to eradicate, started in the 1980s when Eurasian wild boars were brought to Canada. They were imported as part of a federal agriculture diversification initiative, according to a report by Ryan Brook and Ruth Aschim of the University of Saskatchewan’s Canadian Wild Pig Research Project.
Over the years, escapes, releases, large litter sizes and early sexual maturity have enabled wild pigs to spread like wildfire on the Canadian Prairies.
“Wild pigs can escape by jumping fences, burrowing under, using snow drifts, or just breaking through fences,” sid Brook. “These pigs are elusive, they’re widespread, nocturnal, super smart, highly reproductive, have diverse diets, and they’re habitat generalists.”
Brickley and his team have witnessed first-hand how quickly a population of wild pigs can get out of control. In 1999, 14 pigs fell out of the back of a truck and escaped near Moose Mountain Provincial Park.
“That first year, we got 10 out of those 14, so there was just four left and that following year there was 16. Then we kind of waited for others to do something about it and the next year there was probably 40 to 50,” he said.
He added that the animals were also getting harder to track.
“They were outmanoeuvring us, they were outsmarting us and they were populating at a faster rate than we could eradicate them. And it was at that point that we knew we had to do something different. From there, we devised what we classify as the Moose Mountain strategy.”
The Moose Mountain team had to wait five years before they started to see success and another five years before they more finely tuned their technique to the one they use today, which hinges on killing every single pig in a group or risking the survivors becoming too smart to catch. Since the early 2000s, the Moose Mountain team has killed more than 1,000 pigs in the area around the park.
Even with groups like Brickley’s having success, wild pigs are still expanding at an alarming rate.
Brook predicted that by “2020, if not sooner, we can expect to see pigs covering a million square kilometres in Canada.”
This poses a significant problem for crop producers in Canada, specifically on the Prairies, where a majority of the wild pigs live.
Corey Kramer, a master’s student with the wild pig research program, said wild pigs tend to make their home in broad-leaf forests because they provide necessities like a high-energy food source and thermal regulation. But the animals still venture out to feed on crops, including peas, canola, wheat and their favourite, corn.
Brook is calling for immediate action before the wild pig populations get too high to control, as is the case in the United States where they caused an estimated $1.5 billion annually in crop damage. He hopes that Saskatchewan’s provincial government will follow Alberta’s lead and implement legislation to stop the spread.
“Land access is a big one. For example, in Saskatchewan if there is an invasive plant species found on my farm the weed inspector has the right to come on my land and deal with that. But that doesn’t exist in legislation for wild pigs,” said Brook. “Going out and killing wildlife wasn’t the dream but I think (eradication) is our only option.”
Brook pointed to banning sport hunting as a good step toward the eradication of wild pigs because it can actually work against eradication efforts if not properly done.
“All of the states that have shown success have banned sport hunting. (Sport hunting) kills a lot of pigs but you are actually leaving a lot behind who become more elusive. They become more nocturnal, they hit the heaviest, ugliest sloughs and wetlands, with willow cover and tree cover, making them much harder to find.”
The argument that sport hunting is detrimental to eradication efforts is backed up with data found by PhD candidate Ruth Aschim. She said sport hunting kills eight to 24 percent of the population, but because of the pigs’ extremely high reproductive rate, control requires that more than 75 percent are killed each year.
Some hunters, like Barry Kocay in Hudson Bay, Sask., want to do their part to help control wild pigs, but are skeptical that a ban on sport hunting is the right start.
“I am totally against the statement that hunting is causing more pigs but if the doc (Brook) figures that’s the way to go, well I’m OK with it. But it’s not going to help in the forestry, I guarantee you that,” said Kocay, referring to the difficulty tracking the pigs through Saskatchewan’s boreal forest.
“I know for myself if I’m in the forest and I see one, I’m shooting it. To say I can be charged for shooting it, I don’t think that’s the answer.”
Although Brook said he believes sport hunting should be banned, he doesn’t believe sport hunting is all bad because hunters have been helping his team by providing valuable information for research.
“I think we need to work with hunters, not against them,” said Brook, who believes hunting should be used in conjunction with other methods like panel traps and helicopter capture teams.
“Whole sounder (group) removal can be very effective. Shooting individual pigs out of groups tends to be not as useful in terms of reducing, just simply because of their incredible reproductive capacities.”
Kocay is one of many people living in affected areas who lack an organized way to contribute. That’s an example of the lack of leadership that Brook called the biggest obstacle to reducing the wild pig population.
”Lots of people out there have great intentions and that’s fantastic, but it’s fair to say there is no way we are going to get anywhere near eradication unless there is a good team effort. The ability of reduction or elimination of wild pigs in Canada under the status quo is exactly zero,” said Brook.
“We need people, someone, anyone to step up and help to lead this. And there is no evidence at any level of government in Canada, or any province, that there is any real strong leadership here.”