Hogs Wild

Wild boar range over Saskatchewan, wreak­ing havoc. Is there a so­lu­tion? Is it too late? Ex­perts fear th­ese feral swine are here to stay

Canadian Wildlife - - CONTENTS - By Low­ell Strauss

Wild boar range over Saskatchewan in alarm­ing num­bers. Af­ter two decades of dig­ging in, th­ese feral swine could be on the Cana­dian prairies to stay

Inky black eyes stare out from the shad­ows of a tan­gle of trees, wait­ing for the cover of dark­ness. When the sun even­tu­ally sets on the Saskatchewan prairie, this fam­ily of a dozen or so large, hairy and tusked feral mam­mals will emerge to feed on what­ever they can find. Om­niv­o­rous, they roam in groups, leav­ing a wake of de­struc­tion in their path. They will root out rhi­zomes, tu­bers and bulbs, will de­vour nuts, berries, seed, leaves and shoots. They will con­sume earth­worms, in­sects, mol­lusks, fish, ro­dents, bird eggs, frogs and carrion. They will for­age in stand­ing crops; th­ese in­tel­li­gent crea­tures have even learned how to get into the large plas­tic sleeves farm­ers use for tem­po­rary weath­er­proof stor­age of har­vested grain. They live a se­cret life — un­de­tected by the in­hab­i­tants of nearby farms and free from the fences that once con­tained them.

Wild boar have been a ma­jor is­sue for Saskatchewan farm­ers, re­searchers, wildlife-lovers and gov­ern­ments for more than a decade. They are now be­com­ing a scourge. They are spread­ing and mul­ti­ply­ing in the prov­ince, caus­ing ever more dam­age to crops and wild­lands, in­vad­ing sen­si­tive ecosys­tems and pos­ing a threat to hu­mans. While wild boar are well es­tab­lished in all three Prairie prov­inces, Saskatchewan has the most wide­spread dis­tri­bu­tion, though ex­perts are hes­i­tant to es­ti­mate how many are on the loose. (“We just can’t give any ac­cu­rate num­bers of what may be out there… they are so elu­sive and noc­tur­nal,” said one when asked for an es­ti­mate.)

Also found in small num­bers in B.C., On­tario and Que­bec, they are the worst ex­am­ple of an in­va­sive species: not en­demic to the re­gion where they are mul­ti­ply­ing quickly, harm­ing the en­vi­ron­ment, squeez­ing out na­tive species, dam­ag­ing the econ­omy and threatening hu­mans. Wild boar are es­cape artists, able to get through or around fences read­ily and re­peat­edly from the few re­main­ing farms still rais­ing wild boar. And when they are free, they are very, very hard to track or con­trol, let alone erad­i­cate.

Ryan Brook, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Saskatchewan’s Col­lege of Agri­cul­ture and Biore­sources, has been re­search­ing wild boar in his prov­ince for the past five years. Eurasian wild boar, Sus scrofa, are like rats, he says. “They eat al­most any­thing, re­pro­duce quickly and sur­vive in harsh con­di­tions.” A study Brook con­ducted in 2014 with a Dan­ish col­league es­ti­mated boar pres­ence in 70 per cent of the prov­ince’s ru­ral mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties.

Big­ger and hardier than the wild hogs pro­lif­er­at­ing in the south­ern U.S., Cana­dian wild boar adults av­er­age some­where be­tween 50 and 90 kilo­grams, though Brook has come across 130-kg sows. Wield­ing ra­zor­sharp teeth and dag­ger-like tusks, they have a foul dis­po­si­tion: when cor­nered they tend to charge. Their thick wiry coat is usu­ally chocolate brown or dark black, mak­ing them hard to see at night or when hid­ing. The heavy hair is also an as­set for sur­viv­ing Saskatchewan’s long, cold win­ters. Like any ef­fec­tive in­va­sive species, they are highly adapt­able. While harsh Cana­dian win­ters limit the num­ber of lit­ters pro­duced per year, and re­stricted food lim­its the num­ber of an­i­mals that can be sup­ported in an area, Cana­dian wild boar pro­tect them­selves from the sharp prairie cold in “bur­row­ing nests” among snow-cov­ered cat­tails. The in­side of the cav­i­ties they cre­ate melt with their body heat and even­tu­ally freeze and harden, cre­at­ing an ef­fec­tive shel­ter. (Brook calls them “pigloos.”)

Wild boar re­pro­duce quickly, re­lent­lessly. They pro­duce two, even three lit­ters of be­tween four and seven piglets each year (they av­er­age 5.6 per lit­ter). Gen­er­ally, they have one lit­ter in the fall and an­other in early spring (though they do breed any time of the year), mean­ing each fe­male pro­duces be­tween 10 and 17 young per year. Fe­males start breed­ing soon af­ter six months of age. The re­sult of this prodi­gious pro­duc­tiv­ity is the prac­ti­cal im­pos­si­bil­ity of ever erad­i­cat­ing them.

Like many in­va­sive species through­out the world, they are here be­cause they were de­lib­er­ately in­tro­duced. Wild boar were im­ported to Saskatchewan in the late-1980s and 1990s as do­mes­tic live­stock in a move to di­ver­sify farm­ing op­er­a­tions in the prov­ince. Pitched to farm­ers as an op­por­tu­nity to sell ex­otic live­stock at a pre­mium price, it turned out to be a get-rich-quick scheme. Some who got in early saw a re­turn on their in­vest­ment. But for many farm­ers, the only pre­mium prices they saw were what they paid when pur­chas­ing breed­ing stock dur­ing start-up. Even­tu­ally the an­i­mals were be­ing sold for the same price (and of­ten less) than do­mes­tic hogs, and the promised mar­kets never de­vel­oped.

There are sto­ries of frus­trated farm­ers open­ing the gates and free­ing their li­a­bil­i­ties that cost more to keep than they would ever be worth. Re­cent re­search also shows that prox­im­ity to wild boar farms is a fac­tor for de­ter­min­ing free-rang­ing wild boar sites, suggesting “lib­er­ated” boar con­tinue to be part of the prob­lem. (In­ter­est­ingly, this sit­u­a­tion may be unique to Canada be­cause it is only re­cently that wild boar were in­tro­duced, mean­ing growth in the wild pop­u­la­tion still de­pends on es­capees, not just the sows born in the wild.)

MUL­TI­PLI­CA­TION PROB­LEM

Start­ing as young as six months, sows pro­duce two or three lit­ters yearly of be­tween four and seven piglets each

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