Hunters recruited in war against wild pigs

Wild pigs damage crops and the environment and provide a potential reservoir for disease.  | File photo

Officials say it is important to report sightings because the most effective control method is to eradicate an entire group

Darby Warner has a message for hunters out on Saskatchewan fields this season: if you see a wild pig, take the shot. But then call your local crop insurance office to finish the job.

“If an opportunity presents itself, they should take advantage of it but the very next thing they should do is contact us to remove those animals off the landscape,” he said. “There’s nothing good that can come from having them in the wild.”

Warner is director of insurance with the Saskatchewan Crop Insurance Corp. As hunters head onto the fields and into the bush, the organization has stepped up promotion of their feral wild boar control program to encourage people to report sightings of the animals.

Native to Europe, wild boar were first introduced on the Canadian Prairies in the 1990s and were often interbred with domestic pigs as an opportunity for farmers to diversify. Over the years, the wily animals escaped captivity and set up shop in the wild.

With no natural predators, feral wild boars have become an invasive pest. They thrive in harsh winter conditions, for example by burrowing into thick cattail stands to form “pigloos.”

A sounder (group of pigs) can lay waste to acres of crop overnight, or tear up grazing land, gardens, food plots, even cemeteries. They also disturb and displace other wildlife, including game animals such as deer.

While sport hunters have been eager to step up to help, this can make matters worse. Where there has been hunting pressure, sounders tend to include just a few pigs, whereas the largest one captured to date by SCIC-sanctioned trappers included 29 animals.

“They want to help, I get that, but they unknowingly disperse the animals,” said Marnie Zimmer from the Canadian Wildlife Health Co-operative’s (CWHC) Saskatoon office. “The main thing is that you have to get the whole sounder — the whole group of pigs in one shot.”

CWHC conducts research and works with SCIC to test animals for diseases, such as trichinella and swine flu, that could pose a threat to domestic pigs. The system is also ready for foreign diseases such as African swine fever if the need should arise.

Zimmer said the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has instituted aggressive measures to keep ASF and other threats out of the country.

To take down whole sounders, Warner said local people are recruited because they best know the landscape and landowners. Expert hunters and trappers help train new teams.

When a sighting is called in, SCIC follows up. A representative or adjuster is sent out with a local hunter or trapper to scout the area. With the landowner’s permission, they plan their next steps.

One strategy is to erect a pen and bait it with food for the pigs. As they get accustomed to the free meal, the whole sounder eventually shows up and a remote-controlled gate slams shut to capture the group. Weather can also be an ally, for example when snow gets deep and pigs start to “trail up,” using the same pathways. This makes them vulnerable to snares.

Zimmer said feral wild boar learn quickly, so eradication programs must include many different methods.

“It’s tough because the problem is they get smart,” she said. “They get trap shy, so you have to kind of switch gears and figure out what technique is going to work the best.”

This will vary by jurisdiction. For example, she said Alberta’s aggressive response to the problem includes dogs trained to pick up the scent of feral wild boars, while Ontario is concentrating more on detection because boar don’t appear to be a problem in that province yet.

As populations are eradicated, more sophisticated techniques are needed to clean up the last few stragglers. For example, researchers are exploring techniques such as eDNA to detect the genetic material that pigs shed into their environment.

Feral wild boar are a problem right across North America and some jurisdictions such as Texas are overrun. Zimmer said Missouri removed 10,000 animals in a single year. Still, she points to Colorado as reason for hope. That state totally eliminated the animals, but it took 20 years of concerted effort. If provinces put up the funds and other resources, eradication is a realistic goal.

“I think what people have to understand is that it’s going to take time and we just need to keep going at it.”

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