Unseen Menace

Ryan Brook gets a lot of blank looks when he tries to warn people about the threat of feral wild boars in Saskatchewan.

“Many people in the province simply don’t believe we have a problem with feral wild boars,” says Brook, an assistant professor in the Department of Animal and Poultry Science.

“You often hear people say they would never be able to survive Saskatchewan winters in the wild. But they are doing very, very well in this province.”

In this case, ‘very well’ is very bad. Just ask a farmer or naturalist in Texas, home to about half of the four million feral wild boars in the U.S.

“Feral wild boars are a massive problem in Texas, California, and many other states,” says Brook. “In Texas alone, the damage to agricultural crops is $50 million a year. That doesn’t count the $7 million they spend trying to control their numbers or the ecological damage. They’re a rooting animal, and people say when they get into wetlands, it looks as if a giant rototiller has gone through the landscape. One estimate of the overall damage in the U.S. is $1.5 billion a year.”

Those are serious numbers and if the giant rototiller description seems exaggerated, type in ‘wild boars damage’ into Google images and see for yourself. But Brook has another picture that people in this province should find especially chilling.

“One of our trail cameras northeast of Saskatoon got a picture of a female with four young boars, only a few months old, trailing behind her, followed by a group of almost newborn piglets,” says Brook. “It appears that female has had two litters in a year, which shows the kind of reproductive output wild boars can achieve.”

Brook isn’t trying to be alarmist, but says it’s time to recognize wild boars are already a problem in some parts of the province, and things are likely to worsen.

“If you talk to people in Texas and California, they’d probably tell you there’s only a small window where with extreme effort, you might be able to eradicate them,” he says. “Texas has over two million feral wild boars and the potential for extreme numbers in our province is very, very high.”

Wild boars, native to Europe and much of Asia, were introduced to North America by Spanish explorers in the 17th century. They came north in the 1970s and 1980s when the first commercial domesticated wild boar farms were set up. Escapees had no problem adapting to their new northern home, and this remains an issue – although Brook notes there is a significant market for domestic wild boar meat and the key is to ensure farms employ rigorous containment strategies.

Although there’s been nothing found here to rival ‘Hogzilla’ – a 450-kilogram, 3.7-metre-long tusked monster caught in Georgia in 2004 –  males here typically weigh 90 kilograms and can grow to twice that size. They prefer dense brush and wetlands, the kind of landscape you find in Moose Mountain Provincial Park, where local farmers have been waging a little-reported war on them for years.

“They’ve had some successes in Moose Mountain trying to eradicate local populations, but despite that, the numbers in the province keep growing,” says Brook. “In the last five years, there have been sightings across the province from Prince Albert and the tree line in the north all the way to the U.S. border. But we don’t really have a handle on how many there are.”

There’s a good reason for that. Despite their size and the damage they can cause – one farmer next to Moose Mountain park lost 15 acres of oats to wild boars in just two days – these highly intelligent animals are amazing elusive. They are most active in the evening and early morning, and use their keen sense of smell to both search for food and avoid any humans.

But those who have had chance encounters with wild boars never forget them.

“I talked to a fellow from Aberdeen (a half-hour drive northwest of Saskatoon) who was taking away a grain pile with an auger this summer when all of a sudden this great big boar emerged from the pile,” says Brook. “He had been living in the pile and had eaten a huge amount of grain.”

There’s little data on these sorts of incidents – crop insurance only set up a separate category for wild boar damage last year – and Brook says he suspects such cases are relatively rare so far. But for how long?

“Obviously the first step is to know how many you have and where they are,” says Brook.

Brook has obtained some funding from the Cyril Capling Trust Fund, NSERC, and the University of Saskatchewan for a limited investigation. The picture of the female with her bountiful brood came from a project using “black flash” trail cameras, which employ infra-red light invisible to mammalian eyes. (Wildlife avoid spots on their regular trails if surprised by a flash from a normal camera.)  Cameras were set up in 17 locations around the province this spring, and while the research provides insights in boar populations and behaviour at these sites, it truly is just a snapshot of what’s going on.

A far greater effort is needed, says Brook.

“The key thing is getting the right people at the table and launching a coordinated effort between many groups,” he says. “You also need the will to do something. When you’re dealing with an animal that reproduces at this rate, a go-slow approach is not going to have any benefit.”

Brook, a Manitoba native, says he was “astounded” to find so few people in the province realized the potential threat posed by wild boars when he joined the College of Agriculture and Bioresources in 2010.

“When you look at the crop losses, disease potential (wild boars can carry many viral or bacterial diseases and a host of parasites), the environmental damage, and the rest, this critter could conceivably become the biggest species of concern in our province.”

In the U.S., ‘razorbacks’ are now an established part of the rural environment and no one talks of eradication any more. That doesn’t have to be the case here, says Brook.

“I dearly hope that we don’t reach a point in our province where we have hundreds of thousands of wild boars causing tens of millions of dollars in damage each year.”

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