Wild boar range over Saskatchewan, wreaking havoc. Is there a solution? Is it too late? Experts fear these feral swine are here to stay
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.)
Starting as young as six months, sows produce two or three litters yearly of between four and seven piglets each