Wild boar study in Moose Mountains expected to help map their population in Saskatchewan

                In Saskatchewan wild boar were introduced for agricultural diversification, but as the animals escaped it was soon realized that introducing them into the area was not a good idea. Originally it was thought that any that escaped would succumb to the elements, our harsh winters would be their demise, but one of their natural habitats includes the cold temperatures of Russia and the animals actually began to thrive.

                Wild boars are now only recently being studied for a University of Saskatchewan project led by Dr. Ryan Brook, while the wild feral pigs had spurred a local eradication committee over a decade ago.

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Local effects of wild boar and efforts to eradicate them

                Local rancher and member of the Moose Mountain Wild Boar Eradication Committee, Bob Brickley, explained, “The situation started about 14 years ago when the first wild boar were introduced into this area. The boars would do crop damage and terrorize domestic livestock, so local producers started to deal with it independently like most other problems they have, but it became evident we needed an organized effort to eradicate them.”

                As a rancher, Brickley, said, “Our biggest challenge has been our animals. We had a quarter section of swaths for grazing… wild boar foraged the crop and they’re not like elk, deer, or moose, they root it up and work across the field unless you do something about it. There’s no salvaging it; the cattle won’t graze there because of the urine and manure. Everything avoids them.”

                “It was apparent there was agricultural damage, but the wild boars were cleaning nests out of birds, ducks and song birds too, so it’s something that needs to be taken seriously.”

                With help from the Wawota Wildlife Federation the eradication committee was created. Since they began the program they came to a point, three different times, where they thought the Moose Mountains were cleared of the wild boar, but it has not lasted.

                Wild boars are particularly resilient animals with no natural predators in Canada.

                “In the years I’ve been doing this, there’s about eight to 12 people who have spent thousands of personal hours, and there were three times we were quite confident there were no more in the park,” Brickley stated. “Two percent escape annually on average though, so as long as there are commercial operations there’s going to be escapees and if we don’t do something to stop them we will see millions or billions of dollars worth of loss due to wild boar, like the southern United States.”

                “Females can have two litters per year, so each female is having about 12 young and half of those are usually female. It’s an astounding realization and is why if they go unchecked will take over the landscape.”

                “They’re incredibly intelligent and have a great ability to survive, as long as they have some organic matter they will survive, and survive well. Their nutrition is unlimited right now and with their ability to repopulate so easily with no natural predators here it’s very concerning.”

A project to map wild boar develops

                The seriousness of this is what attracted the interest from the University of Saskatchewan’s Ryan Brook, an Assistant Professor with the College of Agriculture and Bioresources.

                “Their population growth rate is exponential,” he explained, stating that in 10 to 15 years there could potentially be more wild boars in Saskatchewan than people.

                “In the United States, there are approximately five million wild boars, and they cause approximately $1.5 billion in damage annually. We have to take this matter very seriously. Do we really want wild boars to cause billions of dollars in damage in Saskatchewan?”

                In total wild boars have been sighted in 111 Rural Municipalities (R.M.’s) of the 296 in Saskatchewan over the past three years.

                “We surveyed the R.M.’s in Saskatchewan and we’re seeing in all corners of the southern half of the province that almost half of all R.M.’s have seen some feral pigs in the last few years,” Brook stated. “We don’t have an estimate number in Saskatchewan because they’re primarily nocturnal, hide in cover, and are widely distributed. They can reproduce very quickly, so the only clear picture we really have is that they are widespread across Saskatchewan.”

                Brook’s research team will be tagging wild boar with tracking collars in order to gather information regarding migration, survival rates, and reproduction rates. They will also use information from people like Brickley who has seen evidence of wild boar on his property.

                “[The project] actually emerged in 2010 when I was looking around for something important to study when I came across a CBC article actually with Bob Brickley talking about the feral pigs harassing livestock,” Brook explained. “Looking at the issue there was no background information in Saskatchewan, so in 2011 we put up trail cameras to document their presence.”

                “We were never able to really get the government or other agencies to become involved, so we kept our operations on a small scale. Two years ago SARM (Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities) asked for a survey.”

                This resulted in the realization of the widespread coverage of the feral pig population and the questions of how much damage they are doing agriculturally in the province, what their effect is on livestock, and the possibility of them spreading disease.

                “In Alberta they put a bounty on them, in Manitoba the entire province is a wild pig control zone, and Saskatchewan hasn’t been doing too much,” Brook said. “Saskatchewan has a team of sharp shooters that through SARM complaints are made and then this team takes them out, but it’s not large enough to really make a difference.”

                “I was ready to give up last year, there wasn’t and still isn’t much interest from government or other groups, but I was asked to attend an international wild boar conference in the United States. The U.S. spends millions of dollars to try to control this issue and they designated some funding for international collaborations.”

                This funding will allow Brook to conduct his research. This information will then be compiled into a comprehensive map which will detail the ecology of the wild boar in Saskatchewan allowing a more holistic understanding of the invasive species.

Establishing the project in the Moose Mountains

                Locally master’s student, Ryan Powers, will be based out of the Moose Mountain Provincial Park to help conduct the study.

                “We’re going to be catching feral wild boar and installing GPS satellite collars on them to learn more about their habitat selection, their movement patterns, dispersal patterns, and their home range size or their ecology overall,” Powers stated.

                Trapping currently will involve corral traps, with a backup plan of a helicopter capture crew if needed. Once the animals are caught, they will be sedated, and telemetry collars will be fitted to each animal; the collar has a battery and connection to a satellite network as well as a backup radio telemetry unit. These collars will transmit data every few hours through a satellite network to those interpreting the data.

                “To my knowledge something like this hasn’t been done Canada before,” Powers said. “They’ve done feral swine studies in the United States, particularly the southern United States and further north the feral swine are now emerging.”

                The study in Saskatchewan will also help those in the northern states infer information as well regarding the feral pigs’ migration patterns.

                The project is expected to last until they acquire approximately a year’s worth of data from each collared animal, which will range between 20 and 40 animals from 10 to 20 different locations across southeastern Saskatchewan and Southwestern Manitoba.

                “Shelby [Adams] and I are working with the community looking for signs of wild boar,” Powers stated. “We’re asking for the public’s assistance in locating feral swine, but also if they find collars to call the number on them so we can get the collar back in and then redeployed.”

                Also if the public locates one of the corral traps they are asked to leave the area alone and not interfere with the unit.

                “At this point we’re working out the logistics of the equipment and surveying areas, looking for signs of wild boar presence,” Powers explained. “We’re ready to transition into trapping and collaring soon as the food sources for feral swine are limited currently these first three months of the year; so, we’re going to try and entice them and are hoping for better success now rather than later in the year when more food is available.”

                If you’ve seen wild boar or have had significant crop damage done to your agricultural land contact Powers through email at ryp440@mail.usask.ca. Also, for updates on the project search Facebook for “Wild Hog Watch.”

The importance of the study

                Brook added that this is a very serious issue, which he hopes his data will relay the gravity of the issue to the provincial government regarding the invasive species.

                “Looking at the habitat in southern Saskatchewan, there is a lot of habitat for them, and we could easily have as many feral swine in the province as people in the next 10 to 15 years. They do tremendous crop damage because they literally rip up the ground. Their impact to the ecosystem is huge: they eat grain, grass, nuts, acorns, and I’ve even spoken with one individual who dissected the stomach of a feral pig and the only thing inside were frogs.”

                Between their ability to eat nearly anything allowing them to survive in a wide array of habitats, the possibility of them transmitting disease, the damage they do to crops and their innate ability to terrorize livestock, wild boar are consider a threat by Brook.

                “There’s a window where we could eradicate them and I think it’s getting close to or has past it. There needs to be a highly aggressive approach in removing them, at least 90 to 100 percent, of the population, anything less than 80 percent is a wasted effort [because of how quickly they reproduce].”

                This is why mapping the presence of and understanding the ecology of wild boar are extremely important.

                “Once we create an occupancy model and apply it across the province we hope to be able to estimate how many are in Saskatchewan because a control program can’t be effective if there is no way to map its success,” Brook stated.

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