While the threat of wild pigs invading the Rocky Mountains certainly exists, it likely hasn’t happened nor will any time soon, said Dave Argument, resource conservation manager with Jasper National Park.
“I don't want to say it's being taken out of proportion. It is an issue for sure. It's certainly a significant issue in agricultural lands across the country where wild pigs are expanding. I think the jury is still out on whether or not this environment – a mountain environment without swaths of agriculture – could actually sustain a population of wild pigs or not.”
In recent years, the large feral mammals have become one of the country’s most problematic pests for both the extensive damage that they cause and also for how difficult it is to eradicate them.
In a recent Fitzhugh interview, Canadian Wild Pig Research Project (CWPRP) head Ryan Brook called them “the worst invasive large mammal on the planet.” He describes wild pig-disturbed land as having no birds, snakes and not even insects, with all vegetation destroyed up to a height of five feet.
“There was virtually no living material of any kind,” he said, describing how they kill and eat everything from ground nesting birds and their eggs to small mammals to larger ungulates including white-tailed deer, elk calves and likely also caribou and moose calves.
They are extremely aggressive, and with their razor-sharp tusks, they are also very well-suited to vicious attacks against a wide range of animals.
Wild pigs are also rooters, so they dig up the soil in a manner not unlike a rototiller. They then wallow in the mud, contaminating the groundwater with dangerous microorganisms like Salmonella and E. coli.
“They tear the land apart,” Brook said. “It opens the land for invasive plant species to move in. It takes years and years to recover. They are an ecological nightmare.”
Wild pigs have been in one-third of Alberta’s municipalities and the CWPRP has a map of sightings that show them being spotted just outside the eastern boundary of Jasper National Park.
Two weeks ago, the Alberta Invasive Species Council’s (AISC) executive director gave a presentation in Cochrane, during which she made a broad appeal for the public to be vigilant and vocal.
“If you see something, say something,” said Megan Evans, noting that increased surveillance and controlled trapping of groups may be the best hope.
Beyond the larger problems of how destructive the creatures are, they are also very intelligent and have a keen sense of smell. These give them an uncanny ability to avoid detection. Nocturnal by nature, they are excellent at avoiding hunters. They have no known natural predators.
Right now, Saskatchewan contains the most wild pigs in the country, with one researcher predicting that there will soon be more wild pigs than people in that province.
Alberta, its neighbour to the west, has already had its fair share of reported sightings. The CWPRP recently posted a map on its Facebook page marking off areas of wild pig sightings across all the Prairies. The image is blotched with red.
Evans said wild pigs at large pose a very serious risk to the domestic hog and beef industry. The feral creatures host several dozen different diseases that can be transmitted to livestock, humans and wildlife.
One example is foot and mouth disease, an infectious and potentially fatal viral infection that affects cloven-hoofed animals, including domestic and wild bovids (such as cattle, bison, sheep, and goats). An outbreak would force a complete and immediate shutdown of all Alberta pork and beef exports, bringing a nationwide $65 billion dollar industry to a standstill.
The $23.8-billion Canadian pork industry is also at risk if African Swine Fever was ever found in our animals. The disease could easily be introduced into a new country through pigs being fed uncooked food scraps that are infected with the virus.
“Spread within a country can be largely facilitated by feral pigs or wild boar. An outbreak in Canada would close our border to pork exports,” Evans said.
All this gave Evans reason enough to repeat the warning to everyone to keep their eyes open. She encouraged people to participate in the “Squeal on Pigs” initiative at www.abinvasives.ca/squeal-on-pigs.
The surveillance program was launched in 2021, a year before the province introduced its Wild Boar Control Program, which includes expanded surveillance and trapping along with modified bounty (remuneration) programs.
The problem with bounties is that the whole pack, or sounder, needs to be eradicated at the same time. Failing to do so teaches the survivors better ways to avoid detection and makes the problem even worse.
Trapping might be the key then, Evans said, trumpeting the province’s strategic and co-ordinated trapping program as part of a collaboration with Alberta Pork.
This lends an even greater importance to tracking the wild pigs. The AISC is working to find more funding for surveillance cameras to do this. It’s also trying to develop surveying methods using drones with thermal cameras.
In Jasper National Park, there is already an extensive wildlife monitoring camera network with 300 locations. Argument said that those cameras get photos of some of our most secretive and cryptic wildlife such as wolverines.
So far, the photo records show no wild pigs.
“We're fairly confident that if wild pigs were here, we would have seen them by now,” he said, adding that the reports from the Foothills Research Institute (FRI) have also shown zero detection on any lands directly to our east as recently as six months ago.
Parks Canada staff are working on preparing a wild pig management strategy this winter should the occasion arise that they do make their appearance.
Argument said that occasion is not expected to come any time soon.
“We're not at a point here where we're fearful that this is, and it may not necessarily pan out to be a significant issue in the end anyways, given the fact that this is not agricultural land. The resources may just not be there to sustain wild pigs.”
Members of the public can report observations of wild boar at large by calling 310-FARM (3276) or by emailing [email protected], or by contacting their local municipal office. A reporting app called through EDDMapS is also available to report sightings.
With files from Howard May of the Cochrane Eagle