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Early eradication is key before sounders become established and it is too late.
April 11, 2023
When it comes to the feral hog population in Canada, Ryan Brook prefers to call the mixture of imported wild boar, abandoned pet potbelly pigs and hybrid breeds of the two, the country's "free-ranging wild pigs."
"We shouldn't have any free-ranging pink pigs running around the land," says the University of Saskatchewan associate professor. "For sure we shouldn't have wild boar out there and we certainly shouldn't have those hybrids, and so this mix of them is very complex and that's why we use the term 'wild pig,' that's the catch-all for all of the above and all of them are important and all of them breed and interbreed and they all reproduce rapidly and spread widely."
While wild pigs have historically been a southern United States problem, Brook says states like Michigan, Montana and Minnesota are now at risk as Canada's herd is on the move.
"One thing we do know about wild pigs is they generally of move at two speeds. They either move five miles an hour on hoof on their own or they move at 65 miles an hour in the back of a pickup truck and I think that is what Michigan, Montana and Minnesota, and a lot of other states, need to think about," he says.
Brook points to a number of cases where individuals have taken wild pigs and moved them to start a hunting operation in another part of the country.
"Releases are an important problem that show up because people want to hunt them," says Brook. "People love to hunt them up in Canada. They're often referred to as the 'poor man's grizzly' because it's one of those species that if you shoot at it and don't kill it, they may come and try and kill you and for some that's a real thrill."
At first people thought wild pigs couldn't survive a cold winter and that's why they were a "southern problem," however that is not the case in Canada, as many of these pigs started living in the coldest parts of the country.
In the 1980s, some Canadian farms even started raising the wild pigs for a niche market across Canada and aimed toward Asian markets. By 2001, the market for this exotic-type farming peaked and then promptly crashed, and producers started cutting fence—in some cases, letting more than 300 animals go at a time.
According to Canadian agricultural census data compiled by Brook and his team, there were 500 wild pig farms with more than 32,000 animals in 2021 at the industry's peak. Western Canada had very high production in place for domestic wild boar farms and it's currently by far the hot spot for free-ranging wild pigs in Canada today, Brook says.
"We're really not aware of any pigs coming from the U.S. naturally or otherwise. This is really very much a release and escape from Canadian farms," he says.
Brook refers to the sounder groups as "wild pig factories," continuously breeding and quite aggressive, with razor-sharp teeth. One of the questions he always gets is won't the wolves and bears take care of keeping the wild pig population down? However, there's really no evidence that wolves and bears have any limiting effect in Canada.
Because these wild pigs start having young of their own so early and reproduction is a huge driver, he often refers to them as "super pigs." Domestic wild boars aren't anywhere near the size of these animals, nor do they have the reproductive output of these hybrids.
"So unfortunately, that hybridization, which was a really good idea on farm and to get bigger animals … of course the domestic pig has an extra set of ribs compared to a wild boar, so a longer pig," Brook says. "You get bigger litters, more frequent litters, all the good things that were bred into our domestic pigs, that moved into the wild boar, was great for production but unfortunately it also meant that they became that far superior as an invasive species. A true super pig."
To stop wild pigs from moving into an area and becoming established, early detection and rapid and aggressive response is crucial—which has been "way too little, way too late" in Canada, he says.
Brook's current database—the only national scale mapping system in Canada—has collected more than 60,000 wild pig occurrences and 60% of those occurred in the last five years. For states, like Minnesota, adopting the practice of mapping free-ranging wild pigs could lead to early eradication, he says. If you wait until wild pigs are firmly established, it is too late and they will be present forever.
"If anybody tells you we can eradicate wild pigs in Canada at this point in 2023, then they fundamentally misunderstand what's going on," Brook says. "There are still people saying that and some will vehemently disagree, but I think that would be fair to say that's a very naive position to say we're eradicating. They're here/ Can we do something about it? Yes. Can we do lots about it? Yes. Does that mean that Minnesota should be thinking long and hard about what this map looks like? Also yes."
Brook points out in southwestern Manitoba there's a major stronghold of wild pigs and the distance between that area and the U.S border is about 45 miles, which is concerning since pigs can easily cover that distance in a couple of days.
"I'm not in the business of telling people what to do but I am in the business of telling people what the science says about pigs and where they go and I am in the business of raising red flags and warning what happens if you don't do anything," Brook says.
He sees the biggest risks for cross-country wild pig movement stemming from the provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba down through the Dakotas and Minnesota.
Another concern is how many visits commercial swine production systems are getting from sounders and groups of free-ranging wild pigs. Brook says some farms in those provinces are seeing hundreds of visits.
"We do see a lot of potential contact and of course, that depends on the type of farm. If it's sealed up, shower in and shower out, maybe not such a huge concern, but backyard operations or anything where you've got animals accessible, they are going to try and mate with them," Brook says. "They're highly attracted to sow barns from the smell and those male wild boars want to mate and of course any kind of feed or spilled feed is going to be an attractant. In terms of disease, we know there's lots and lots of diseases that can spread to wild pigs and they can actually spread to domestic pigs."
This is especially concerning as the global swine industry has seen African swine fever spread across Europe and Asia from the wild boar population to domestic herds.
Brook says it's important to recognize, "you can't barbecue your way out of a wild pig problem." Hunters make the problem worse as they break up groups and spread them, and they will continue to rapidly reproduce.
Also, while communication is essential, meetings don't eradicate wild pigs.
"Minnesota, if you want to have success, stay pig free, prevent pigs, it's tied to what you guys do today," Brook says. "It's also tied very much to what your neighbors do including Manitoba, including the Dakotas, including the states to the south as well with respect to wild pig removal in Canada."
Wild pig removal in Canada in 2022 through control programs was less than 300 animals. Brook says it needs to be more than 3,000 per year, with a real focus on whole sounder removal. This is an enormous gap and the clock is ticking.
Brook suggests states implement a control or ban on wild boar farms and transport as well as bait/feed. Put together a state wild pig management response plan and look into trapping options and GPS tracking. There also may be some options with poison, but sport hunting should not be an option.
He encourages every producer to go and buy two trail cameras and start reporting wild pig occurrences across North America.
"The cornerstone issue is you must find them and then you absolutely must act on it right away. Having a reporting mechanism, but no response strategy doesn't make any sense," Brook says. "This is going to piss people off and say, 'well why do I bother' and we've seen a little bit of that in North America, when they get the cart firmly in front of the horse and people start reporting, but they haven't figured out what they're going to do about it yet, so you've got to be able to do something and be very aggressive."
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