Why Ontario really doesn’t want 30 to 50 (or any) feral hogs

Wilds pig carry disease and parasites and can cost billions in damage. So the government has launched a pilot project to investigate and track possible sightings across the province
By Kelsey Rolfe - Published on Nov 16, 2020
Wild pigs reach reproductive age at six months and can have one to two litters per year. (iStock/SweetyMommy)

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On Halloween morning, Sandra and Jeremiah Dutkiewicz stood on the front porch of their Melancthon home, looking out at their front yard. Through the trees, they caught a glimpse of an intruder — stocky, black, and the height of a large golden retriever. A pig was wandering loose on their property.

The couple watched the pig for about an hour as it roamed their yard. Eventually, it headed into a nearby farmer’s field and then disappeared into the woods. Sandra reported the sighting to Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry and posted about it in a Facebook group for her rural community, north of Orangeville. She learned that other neighbours had seen the pig days before.

“Our impression was that it was wild just because of the length of hair on it,” says Sandra. She saw the pig again, days later, in her neighbour’s open field — but this time she didn’t post about it online: she didn’t want to make it a target for hunters. “I’m by no means a pig expert, but I have seen domestic pigs and I have seen potbelly pigs,” she says. “I used to work at an animal hospital when potbelly pigs were a popular pet, [but] it looks more wild than that.”

Wild-pig sightings are relatively uncommon in Ontario, and the provincial government is hoping to keep it that way — going whole hog on a strategy to track down the animals and put them in captivity.

Earlier this year, the ministry announced it was considering regulating wild pigs (a term that encompasses escaped Eurasian wild boars and domestic pigs, hybrids of the two, and potbelly pigs) under the Invasive Species Act. It also launched a pilot project, which the pandemic pushed back until July, to investigate wild-pig sightings across the province and track whether the population is spreading.

A spokesperson told TVO.org via email that the ministry has received roughly three to four wild-pig sightings per week since January 2020. The pilot is slated to conclude in March 2021, and “the results, findings, and recommendations from the pilot study will be used, along with research and management experiences from other jurisdictions to inform future actions to prevent the establishment of wild pigs in the province.”

(In regard to the Melancthon sighting, a ministry spokesperson told TVO.org via email that research staff visited the area in late October “to investigate several sightings of a single pot-bellied pig,” adding, “Our staff spoke to 33 residents and left informational fliers at 18 additional residences in the area to try and find the owner of the pig or determine if it is feral.”)

Experts say that, while the prospect of pigs on the lam may seem funny, it’s a problem nobody wants. Wild pigs reach reproductive age at six months and can have one to two litters per year, meaning that a few pigs that have snuck away from a farm can quickly turn into an unmanageable horde. The animals are known to carry at least 30 viral and bacterial diseases and almost 40 parasites. In 38 states and in Canada’s Prairie provinces, where populations have grown rapidly, pigs have attacked livestock; destroyed native plants, animals, and habitats; and competed with domestic species for food.

If African swine fever, a virus that causes hemorrhagic fever and death in pigs and has spread across Europe and Asia, were to arrive in North America, experts fear that wild pigs would hasten its spread — causing pork exports to grind to a halt and creating devastating economic impacts. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Research Centre, wild pigs cause more than $2.5 billion of damage annually.

“Our understanding of how destructive wild pigs are is continually evolving,” says Keith Munro, a wildlife biologist with the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters, which has lobbied the provincial government to regulate wild pigs under the ICA. Munro says that the federation ramped up its lobbying efforts in 2018 after several of its members mentioned having spotted hogs.

“Wild pigs are destructive on game species,” he says. “They’ll compete with or prey on really important species like the white-tailed deer, wild turkey, [and] species at risk, such as the northern bobwhite. They can degrade water quality, and they spread other invasive species because they create disturbed habitats. It’s an incredibly destructive creature we don’t need to have on the Ontario landscape.”

As part of the pilot project, ministry technicians investigate any credible sightings by placing trail cameras with bait, and door-knock or leave letters in mailboxes around the community to see whether the animal has an owner.

While the goal is to return runaway pigs to their farms, those with unclear provenance are considered a threat and euthanized. According to Erin Koen, a research scientist in wildlife landscape ecology at the ministry, in the two years she’s worked there, it’s been forced to euthanize only one Eurasian wild boar.

So far, she says, the pilot project has revealed that Ontario’s wild-pig population is limited to escapees. “Our understanding, with all the information we have right now, is that we don’t have any populations of wild pigs that are breeding in the wild like they are in the Prairies,” she says. “We’re in prevention mode.”

Ryan Brook, an associate professor at the University of Saskatchewan and one of North America’s foremost wild-pig experts, says that Ontario’s strategy could help it avoid suffering the same fate as Saskatchewan — Canada’s wild-pig hot spot and home to 58 per cent of the country’s wild-pig spread. There, Brook says, eradication is no longer possible. “Ontario’s being very proactive and on top of this now. I think Ontario is a good example of a province that has a very good chance of becoming and staying pig-free.”

According to a 2019 paper written by Brook and University of Saskatchewan doctoral candidate Ruth Aschim, wild pigs have expanded their range in Canada 9 per cent annually over the last decade, and sightings have now started being reported in southern Ontario. Their forthcoming update shows that wild pigs now occupy a million square kilometres in Canada — an area larger than Spain.

Brook says their research lines up with what Koen and the ministry are seeing on the ground. “We can say Ontario is right now in 2020 what Saskatchewan was about 15 to 20 years ago — a few pigs here and there and a very high probability, with concentrated efforts, to get it under control.”

This summer, the ministry scored a major win when technicians were able to return a sow and her seven piglets to the farm she’d left. “The farmer had been trying to retrieve those animals and was not successful, and so we were concerned because those piglets had been born in the wild,” Koen says. “If we’d left them, I think we would have had a bigger problem in the future. But, fortunately, we were able to deal with it when it was still a relatively simple thing to do.”

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