By Vanda Schmockel
“We had to do something to preserve our livelihood.”
It might sound melodramatic, but Bob Brickley, a rancher near Moose Mountain Provincial Park, said this was the thought that went through his head shortly before he began hunting feral wild boar roughly eight years ago. He said wild boar had entered his cattle herd’s feeding area, causing one of his cows to break her leg after being charged. Six others in the herd were also attacked.
“The following summer the wild boar started rooting in our crops and damaging the standing crops as well,” he said. “It was very obvious at that point that if we let this continue, they literally would prevent us from surviving economically on the farm.”
Wild boar were first introduced to Saskatchewan in the late ‘70s through early ‘90s as a way to diversify agriculture in the province. By 2006, there were 81 wild boar farms operating in Saskatchewan. Those numbers have reportedly dwindled in recent years, but we’re seeing the legacy of some of those farming endeavors today – in the form of feral wild boar. And their numbers are on the rise. It’s estimated that the rate of escape for wild boar is in the range of three per cent per year. Once they’ve gone feral, they’re very adaptable – even in the face of a cruel Saskatchewan winter.
“A lot of invasive species wouldn’t survive because they can’t tolerate the winters, but boar come from Siberia, so this is like a mild winter for them,” said Dale Harvey, executive director of the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities. SARM is responsible for allocating a $50 thousand annual fund made available by the province for the express purpose of controlling wild boar. And the way the wild boar are being controlled at the moment is by hunting.
That’s not as easy as it might sound. Part of the problem is finding out where the boar are, and that’s what Ryan Brook, an assistant professor in the college of agriculture and bioresources at the University of Saskatchewan is trying to do. His research over the past year has involved using a network of trail cameras to document the presence and movement of boar.
It turns out the animals have really gotten around. Brook and his team have recorded wild boar from Tisdale to Tobin Lake. But wild boar activity has also been reported much further afield - from southeastern Saskatchewan all the way up to the Battlefords. Brook said the animal’s inherent hardiness and propensity for prolific breeding is what makes them such a successful species on the prairie. The boar become sexually active at six months of age, and sows can produce two litters annually, averaging six per litter, causing their population to grow exponentially by the year.
Brook said they pose a real threat – not just to agriculture, but to local ecosystems as well, displacing other species including low-nesting birds. And then there are the threats to public health.
“There’s a number of potential diseases that boar could become a reservoir for, and could transmit to people and livestock. So those are important concerns, for sure,” he said.
Some of the diseases linked to wild boar include bovine tuberculosis, pseudo-rabies, and Brucellosis – a disease that is transmissible to humans and has already been linked to the hunting and handling of wild boar.
Some say it’s a potential disaster in the making. Brickley attended the International Wild Pig Conference in San Antonio, Texas last year and said he received words of warning from another rancher who reflected on how he might have dealt with the problem there with the benefit of hindsight.
“I said ‘what would you do if you could go back 15 years?’ and he said ‘well, my neighbours and I would stop everything we were doing, and we’d hunt those bastards until every one was dead.’”
But, as Brickley points out, once you figure out where the boar are, it isn’t as simple as just heading out with a shot gun. The boar are experts at outwitting the average hunter, so careful planning and strategizing is needed.
“You have to understand the intelligence of these animals,” he said. “If you wander in with the traditional hunting methods that most people use in North America, the wild boar know you’re there and they just outmaneuver you. You have to locate them without them knowing. They’re incredibly smart. Their intelligence is way beyond what I would ever have imagined.”
When Brickley organizes a hunt, he said he’s sure to assemble a small group of very experienced boar hunters. The best time to hunt is in winter – when the boar’s thick black fur contrasts against the snow. His first step is to locate the boar by air. Brickley has a small plane that he takes out to scout the boars’ location before heading out into the field with guns.
“We don’t hunt them unless they’re in their nest,” he said. “Because when they’re in their nest, they’re resting and usually stay put. And you’ve got to come in on them with the wind to your advantage, because if they sense you coming in, they’ll be gone before you get to them. So it’s very important to approach them in such a way that they don’t know you’re there - so you can get in close enough to actually kill them before they have a chance to escape.”
It sounds like a scene from an action movie where a SWAT team waits to take out the bad guys. For many farmers in Saskatchewan, that’s exactly what these animals are.
While the province is aware of the potential threat to both agriculture and public health, the Ministry of Agriculture doesn’t yet have anything in the way of legislation to address importing wild boar to the province, and once they’re here, there isn’t much in place to deal with escaped boar, aside from hunting them down in cooperation with SARM.
“The wild boar control program is where we are focusing our efforts in terms of controlling,” said Jim Babcock, manager of livestock development with the Ministry of Agriculture. “The number of producers has been on the decline over a period of time, so those numbers are getting less.”
But, at some point or other, Brook said, something more significant will have to be done to deal with them. He said in Texas, it’s estimated that there are somewhere between two and three million wild boar on the loose, causing millions of dollars worth of damage annually.
“There was a study in California where they killed, every single year, 60 per cent of the boar, and the population didn’t go up or down. It just stayed the same,” Brook said. “So, even to just have maintenance, you’d need to have very aggressive approaches.”
Brickley is convinced that it’s just a matter of time before the same scenario plays out in Saskatchewan.
“Such a small portion of the population is involved in agriculture now, and those that aren’t really don’t give a hoot,” he said. “As our farms and ranches are becoming larger, there are fewer people. And there’s more urbanites, and they don’t put an emphasis on this. They will never put an emphasis on this until they go to the store one day, and there’s a shortage of food.”