Alberta losing battle against wild boars, says scientist


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The prairie provinces are doing far too little to combat the destructive menace of wild boars, says a scientist who’s studied them for a decade.

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And while Alberta’s efforts at controlling the highly disruptive feral pigs are the best in Canada, they’re still not enough and are undermined by the lack of action in Saskatchewan, says Dr. Ryan Brook, a wildlife ecologist at the University of Saskatchewan.

“I would give a gold star to Alberta of all the provinces; they’re certainly the most proactive and they’re the only province with an actual action plan,” said Brook, adding the hoofed beasts don’t recognize provincial boundaries.

“But everything Alberta tries to do is in jeopardy because Saskatchewan doesn’t have a strategy. . . With the lack of action in Saskatchewan, they’ll have no long-term meaningful success.”

The animals are considered the most destructive invasive mammal species on earth and are known for trashing crops, harming livestock and wildlife, spreading disease, damaging river banks and even attacking humans and invading urban areas.

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Alberta’s approach to reducing or eliminating wild boar populations — which have become a pest on all continents except Antarctica — has evolved and now includes tracking and hunting by aircraft and using bait corrals.

But the animals — which originated in the 1980s and 1990s as fugitives from wild boar ranches — are extremely intelligent, hardy and elusive, even boring under snow for warmth and protection in what Brook calls “pigloos.”

“We have had animals with GPS satellite collars hiding under snow cover with a plane circling picking up beeps, a helicopter hovering just off the ground with an infrared camera and a team on snowmobiles trying to find an animal,” he said.

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“It took about a half an hour to finally find it. . . One of the ground crew was parked about 10 feet from it and it was bulldogged under the snow.”

Saskatchewan, he said, has by the far the largest population of wild pigs on the Prairies and has a presence in about half the province’s rural municipalities.

Brook points to an online map of Saskatchewan coloured with an ever-spreading red denoting wild pig territory, a document he says is culled from public reporting and scientific tracking.

“They’re expanding out of control, their numbers are exploding. . . They spread by about 80,000 square kilometres a year in Canada,” he said.

The size of sounders, or family groups, has grown as has their annual breeding period leading to a population growth that’s even alarmed some in the bordering states of Montana and North Dakota who fear the provinces aren’t doing enough to prevent a wild pig invasion, said Brook.

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Only the destruction of entire groups at a time will lead to local eradication and hunting them has proven counterproductive, said Brook, echoing the views of Alberta government pest control officials.

Those inevitably surviving hunting forays learn to avoid them and disperse more widely, they say.

“You can’t be serious about eradication without a plan to ramp up to a full effort. The window is closing and we have to get on it,” said Brook.

However, Darby Wagner — executive director of the Saskatchewan Crop Insurance Corp, which oversees control efforts — says Brook’s assessment of the wild boar problem is wildly exaggerated. And, he is underselling Saskatchewan’s eradication efforts.

“Saskatchewan has done a lot more work to remove the animals in recent years than Alberta — they don’t have any programs in place,” Wagner said. “We’re not seeing the animals he’s reporting in his findings.”

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The province’s feral pig program has about 20 people using snares and so-called Judas pigs — animals with GPS collars that are set loose to implicate large swine populations.

He said the effort is conducted within a $50,000 annual budget.

“It serves us; it’s been enough to serve our costs to date,” said Wagner.

Wild boars are a problem in Saskatchewan that needs to addressed, but Wagner said no such animals are thought to have entered the border states in the U.S. and that reports of marauding pigs along the border turned out to be domesticated pot-bellied pigs.

He said crop damage insurance claims involving wild pigs have amounted to $96,000 in the past 10 years.

Brook expressed concern at the issue being downplayed, saying spotty reliance on public reporting and Saskatchewan eradication measures are wholly insufficient, shown partly by that province’s $50,000 budget.

“They’re living in a dream world,” he said.

In a statement, a spokeswoman for Alberta Agriculture and Forestry said its working relationship with Saskatchewan and Montana is “positive” and that its pilot project to aid public awareness includes surveillance and research.

“If a wild boar is spotted close to the borders with Montana, B.C. or Saskatchewan, our wild boar specialist notifies them and shares information,” said Jessica Johnson.

The annual budget for the project is $55,000 and hasn’t changed in recent years, she added.

[email protected]

on Twitter: @BillKaufmannjrn

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