Wild pigs are rapidly spreading across Canada, and researchers say it's time to worry
If you spend extended periods of time wandering through the Prairie wilderness, chances are you’ll hear the telltale snort of one of Canada’s most invasive species.
Wild pigs were first brought to Canada from Europe in the 1980s and have since exploded in numbers, according to the first-ever study to map the feral mammals’ territory. And researchers warn that wild pigs have the potential to rapidly spread diseases, devastate crops and destroy natural vegetation.
“There are numerous problems associated with these animals once they’re introduced onto our landscape,” Ruth Aschim, a researcher with the University of Saskatchewan, told CTV’s Your Morning on Wednesday.
Wild pigs were originally introduced in hopes of diversifying Canadian livestock production. But, after mating with domestic pigs, many of the hybrid pigs escaped from their pens or were intentionally set free.
To make matter trickier, wild pigs are highly adaptive. They are hardy enough to survive Canadian winters burrowed in snowy “pigloos” and, as voracious omnivores, often spend summers feasting on anything they can find, including insects, reptiles and farmers’ crops.
These days wild pigs cover a range of over 777,000 square kilometres in Canada. Researchers say their territory has grown by an average of 88,000 square kilometres per year over the last decade.
The report mapped wild pig territory by using tracking collars, mounting cameras on trails and researching confirmed sightings. Researchers found that Saskatchewan is home to the country’s largest population of the swine, with smaller populations spread across every province except those in Atlantic Canada.
On an international scale, wild pigs have the largest global range of any non-domesticated terrestrial mammal, researchers said.
The reason for the rapid spread has a lot to do with their mating patterns. Wild pigs give birth to an average of six pigs a litter, and can give birth three times each year. Piglets become sexually mature as early as fourth months of age.
“Environmentally, they pose numerous problems,” Aschim said. “They cause biodiversity loss, erosion, degradation of our water quality, they can alter our natural ecosystems.”
The potential cost of wild pigs on Canadian industries isn’t known, but one estimate in the U.S. suggests that they could cost as much as US$1.5 billion to the American economy.
One of the biggest risks that wild pigs pose is a disease called African swine fever (ASF). According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, ASF is an incurable disease that has never been found in Canada, but an outbreak would have a “significant impact” on the Canadian pork industry.
A report published in April in Frontiers in Veterinary Science found that ASF has spread to more than 55 countries on three continents. The disease, researchers say, is “the most significant threat to the pig industry worldwide.” Reports out of China detail live burials of thousands of pigs infected with ASF.
A case of ASF in Canada could spread quickly across the country thanks to the near-national range of wild pigs.
“We know wild pigs are host infectors of this disease. And this could cause significant negative impacts to the swine production industry as well as trade implications,” Aschim said.
Hunting the feral swine may seem like a natural solution. But Aschim said firing a gun at the pigs would only make the problem worse.
“They’re very intelligent and all you really do is educate them … They’ll become exclusively nocturnal, they’ll be educated to human pressure, and they’ll become more elusive and wary of human presence,” she said.
Instead, Aschim said Canada needs to follow the U.S. lead and implement an “aggressive and very targeted” plan that involves eradicating and managing the populations.