Jordan: Our story today is about pigs. Once upon a time, someone brought some wild pigs to the Canadian prairies for farming and hunting and eating, and as they tend to do, some of those pigs got loose. Now years later, the prairies have a problem. A crop wrecking water fowling, rapidly reproducing, potentially disease spreading problem. In the prairies you see, feral pigs are an invasive species, and they are spreading. You might remember a recent story on this podcast about Toronto’s rat problem. Part of that story was about how Alberta’s quick action and long term follow up has ensured that rats are almost non existent in that province, and right now every government on the prairies faces a very similar dilemma. If it’s not already too late, they need a solution that will eradicate these pigs quickly before they outnumber humans, and I didn’t exaggerate that last part. I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings, and this is The Big Story. Jason Markusoff is the Alberta correspondent for Maclean’s. Hey Jason.
Jason: Hello, hello.
Jordan: Can you describe for me because it sounds really disturbing, how Albertans, and I guess everybody on the prairies learns that feral pigs are near their property. What kinds of stories did you hear as you talk to people?
Jason: I was talking to one farmer in Saskatchewan. Now, it’s a pretty fast spreading problem but due to the nature of pigs being fairly hidden and not really hanging out in public too often, not a lot of farmers get to see this. But you hear this occasionally, you’ll hear hunters getting, you know, winding up seeing them when they’re going on hunting trips in the bush. You’ll see people hitting them with their cars, and they’re pretty big animals, were talking 7500 kilograms from 400 pound animals, so they’ll do a number on your car if you hit one like a deer or moose. I spoke to one farmer in the Saskatchewan area where the pigs have been pretty prominent, and he’s seen them late at night, and he just like, you know, you flash your lights on, you see these beacon eyes in the distance. Once they wound up running onto his farm where near his kids were playing and if you get where the mother is with her piglets, that could be pretty dangerous, just like a mother and her cubs. And then he’s had parts of his farm uprooted, as though some drunken dude went on a joy ride with the rotor tiller and thrashed up all his property. Another area, his canola had a strip taken out of it. These dudes are bad and they can do a lot of damage.
Jordan: So what are they exactly, and where did they come from? Because when I hear the term feral pigs, I think of, you know, feral cats which are domesticated animals gone wild. Is that what these are, or what are they?
Jason: These are domesticated animals gone wild but not, you know, not your pet guinea pigs aren’t like that or little pot bellied pigs. This was in the eighties and nineties, until then wild boars as we know them in cuisine and farming, weren’t really prominent. They decide to bring a bunch in on several farms for agricultural diversification programs. If regular hog farming is suffering this is something different. Wild boar meat is a delicacy, and if you haven’t tried it, it is actually delicious, and it is quite a good farm to gain meat, but sometimes they would run loose to get out or they would be released into the wild. Farmers would just give up and release them into the wild, and they would go out there and reproduce like, well, like bunnies I guess. Sows can have six pigs per litter, you know, once or twice a year so talk about that it multiplies rapidly the problem, and that’s how we got to where we were.
Jordan: So you mentioned I guess that they’re pretty big animals and they stay away from humans. But how;What do we know about how they behave? And if they’re dangerous or not?
Jason: Well, they’re mostly nocturnal. They mostly keep to themselves. They’re not looking for trouble. Like most wildlife, they’re not out there looking to attack humans or to cause economic damage on farms. They mostly do their stuff at night, they often stay together in packs, they say, like senior rivers and actually, ecologists worried that some river areas are most at risk by the wild pigs because they’ll wallow in the river and then they’ll start rooting up from the areas around the river looking for bugs and seeds to eat, and they’ll, you know, yield go around a parts of Saskatchewan where there are sea riverbanks totally be spoiled. You know, like the worst of invasive species they have no natural predator in Canada because they’re not native this area. So nothing is really stopping them from spreading, at least nothing in nature.
Jordan: And how are they spreading? Do we have any idea how quickly; What kind of numbers we’re talking about?
Jason: So the reason I got onto this story and this wound up in the media little bit was there was over study in nature science reports, and there have been some academics out of the University of Saskatchewan that has been tracking the spread of wild pigs using various survey methods over the years, and there’s this one series of maps they put out from the 1990’s to 2017 that it looks like what starts out as a few bites becomes a wild massive untreated rash that is covering large swaths of Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta and spreading rapidly throughout. In the 1990’s the survey found that across Canada, 27 watershed areas had wild pigs. Last decade that number leaped to 348, went up by more than 10. By 2017 the reports were 993 swine infested watersheds. So from 27 to 993 in barely two decades, and they cover an area that spans 778,000 square kilometers. That’s bigger than Texas and New Brunswick combined.
Jordan: Wow. Yeah, I mean, I’m looking at the map that you sent me, and it is…. if it was my neighborhood that was located anywhere near that, I’d be worried. It’s impressive growth.
Jason: But the reality;Yeah, it is alarming growth and at this level, at this rate, most people haven’t seen them, so there’s not a lot of awareness out there. If you’re a farmer next to a group of 200 pigs, you might see some, but in a lot of communities, they just keep to themselves. You don’t see them too often. You may see one or two thinking, oh, just farmer Dwayne’s, one of his pigs got loose so whatever. It’s not a big problem yet, but the experts that study this say we’re getting there because the spread is rapid and, that’s what you see elsewhere.
Jordan: So aside then from potential damage to watersheds that you mentioned, I guess theoretically, though, it’s rare encounters with these pigs. What are the concerns? There are health issues, safety issues. Why is this a big problem?
Jason: Well, there are two worries. One is that if we don’t really treat this rash as it were, we could get what they see in Texas and parts of California, where these pigs have been on the run for decades upon decades centuries, really, and you have massive problems with the crop damage. Annual US crop damage is estimated 1.5 billion dollars, and there are routine claims by car accidents you know, they could be deadly at times, but collisions between vehicles and wild pigs in America cost about $36,000,000 U. S. a year. So if left unchecked, the damage can be quite prominent, you’ll see more and more human pig interactions. It will be damaging more crops, damaging more water areas, getting in to campsites, it could be a serious problem. The other problem is health issue. Right now, Canada’s fortunate we don’t have disease in our wild pig population. But what’s really helping focus Canadian officials minds on this and a lot of minds throughout the world is a disease that’s really hit hard in Europe, called African swine fever, which isn’t harmful to humans. But if it hits a pig population, it can be very deadly, and it can wipe out a lot of the population, and while pigs were spreading very rapidly in Europe, so rapidly and such a big worry that in Denmark they’re building a fence across the border of Germany to make sure that the wild pigs, some which might have disease in Germany don’t reach that northern state. Now this, like I said, this swine fever hasn’t hit Canada. But if it does hit Canada and somehow gets into the wild pig population it’s extremely hard to control, and it could spread very rapidly. So that’s again helping Canadians focus their mind on how do we actually control this problem?
Jordan: So what are the governments and the prairies doing about this? Are they taking steps right now?
Jason: They’ve been working on this for a while. One of the problems, though, is that one of their solutions was not good, especially in Alberta, where they thought, well, hunters want at this, hunters can eliminate this by ourselves. We’ll actually offer a bounty program, $50 per sow’s ear, pig’s ear and we’ll get hunters to do this. Hunters love killing pigs, they’re fun to attack apparently, I’m not a hunter but this is apparently a big past time. I mean, there are, you know, one of the reasons they brought wild pigs over was as a penned hunting experience. The problem they learned, and they’ve stopped this bounty program in Alberta is that the wild pigs, once they’re hunted, they stop going to that area. They become smarter, they become more defensive. Officials keep telling me that while pigs are remarkably intelligent, they will learn not to be there. So if you attack them during the day, they’ll just become more nocturnal, more hidden and multiply rapidly without being checked, so they’ve pulled back on that program. Alberta has tried other methods and the problem with other methods is that they take longer and they are more costly. One of them is that they build a big corral and they lure one pig with with oats and molasses and then another pig will come, another pick will come, and then they’ll eventually hopefully in a week or two hen off the whole group and then take them out at that point. Or there are surveillance drones…. in some areas they do aerial shooting. One of the ones that’s the most interesting is the Judas pig method.
Jordan: Sorry. What?
Jason: The Judas pig method.
Jordan: Okay, that is what I thought I heard. Explain what the Judas Pig method is.
Jason: In Bible school you might have heard of Judas Iscariot and know what he did to Jesus. I’m Jewish, I don’t know too much about it, so I won’t go into that much detail on that one but I will explain what these Judas pigs are. So they will take one pig out of a group, one wild pig, and equip that pig with a GPS collar, and track that pig as they go around. Pigs travel in packs, they’re called Sounders, that’s what a group of pigs is called. So this one pig will find the group and in usually a helicopter officials will go up and take out all the other pigs, except for the one with the GPS collar and then the GPS collar pig, the Judas Pig will go find another group because that’s what they do, they want to find groups, and that Judas pig will hang out with the next group, and they’ll do the same with that group, and this Judas pig will go to another group. This doesn’t;This isn’t a foolproof method, but it’s one that the officials I speak to find very promising.
Jordan: I kind of feel really bad for that one poor pig, like that’s gotta be a hard life.
Jason: He’s not gonna be a popular guy in group. I mean that is trauma after trauma, I guess. But, you know, he must feel lucky that he’s the one who survives.
Jordan: When we talked, we talked on this show a couple weeks ago about Toronto’s disgusting rat problem and one of the things that our guests mentioned to us because we talked about the rest of Canada too, is that Alberta, in particular, was extremely good at getting out in front of an exploding population and keeping vigilant for growth and removing rats whenever they saw them, and that’s done some incredible work to keeping Alberta’s rat population almost non existent. So the question that I had reading your piece about these feral pigs is, is it too late? Like do people in governments there think it’s too late to really get ahead of this, and now they’re just trying to control it? Or is there still a chance to use these methods and other methods to scale this population way back and maybe even get rid of them?
Jason: They haven’t given up hope certainly. The officials I speak to say that this could be controlled. It’s tough, it’s tricky. They’ve done all these methods but that first farmer I spoke with early in this conversation, Jordan. The Saskatchewan crop insurance corporation that deals with this for the province of Saskatchewan, they told me that they eradicated all the pigs. They’ve gone;They’ve done all these methods. They checked;They went back and checked, and there were no pigs. I asked Jordan, he says, and I saw a few last week, they’re still around. So it’s very tricky to really eradicate them, but certainly they can control them. They have been able to flush pigs out of certain areas. It’s gonna take a lot of effort, and a lot of money, and that’s how it worked with the Alberta and Rats. They devoted serious resources to this problem, had many officials, and many different methods over a long period of time and work diligently once they thought they had eradicated the problem to keep on it. So it’s gonna take a lot of work. You know, the lead experts who did this study and showed these rash like maps that track there spreads said if we don’t get to this seriously in the next year or two, it’s probably going to be something that’s continually spreads into this continuous problem. In Alberta 1 guy, and this sounds alarmist says that we could see the day where wild pigs even outnumber the population of Saskatchewan in the province. There are more than 1,000,000 people in Saskatchewan.
Jordan: Wow! Is that their ultimate goal to totally eradicate the wild population because it’s an invasive species? Or would they like some to remain?
Jason: There is no benevolent purpose or active purpose for them in a while, in our nature. They’re an invasive species, there’s no natural predator. If they’re out there, they will keep spreading and rapidly given their birth rate and their resilience and intelligence. So no, I don’t think there’s a save the pigs movement just yet. I mean, they are cute people, do like that old movie, babe so maybe if there’s an aggressive movement, there could be a save the pigs movement. But no wild pigs are a serious menace on our landscape in Canada and they should be treated as such.
Jordan: They should make a really dark sequel to Babe about the Judas pig.
Jason: Babe Iscariot.
Jordan: Thanks, Jason.
Jason: My pleasure.
Jason: Jason Markusoff off is a Maclean’s man in Alberta, by extension, kind of ours too. That was The Big Story, for more from us you’ll find us at thebigstorypodcast.ca. You could find us on Twitter, and we want to talk to you @ thebigstoryfpn. You can find our friendly brother and sister pods, something for everyone at frequencypodcastnetwork.com, we’ve got some more things coming soon and, of course, all of our podcasts everywhere you get them, whatever app you can think of, I don’t have to name them, just choose your favourite. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, we’ll talk tomorrow.
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