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Invasive 'super pigs' encroaching on Alberta's mountain parks, experts warn

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Experts warn that Canada's "super pigs" – a crossbreed of wild boars and domestic pigs – are quickly encroaching on mountain parks and communities in Alberta.

A leading researcher on the topic, Dr. Ryan Brook at the University of Saskatchewan's College of Agriculture and Bio Resources, says the risk the swine could pose to national parks is serious.

"These wild pigs are the worst invasive large mammal on the planet," he said.

"So, if you ask me, 'Ryan, what's worse than invasive pigs?' I don't even know what to tell you. I don't know anything. They are terrible."

Pigs are not native to Canada but were a species introduced in the 1980s to be raised on farms for meat production before the market peaked and collapsed in the early 2000s.

"You could barely give away a wild boar, so people started cutting fences and letting them go," Brook said.

"We've had this ongoing pattern of escapes and releases, and those animals have actually thrived in the wild."

At the time, it was believed the wild boars wouldn't be able to survive Alberta winters, but Brook says people underestimated the animal's intelligence.

"They learned to tunnel into the snow, so when it's really cold, like -30 C, -40 C, they're under the snow, under that insulated blanket, and toasty and warm," Brook said.

"They can be really big. They're also covered in thick fur and so they're really adapted to the cold and have done well."

Brook says wild pigs are now widespread and firmly established in Canada, and continue to spread in the Prairies.

"They are here permanently to stay on the Prairies for at least another 300 years. So, we've missed the window to eradicate them. Now, we have to think about how do we live with these invasive wild pigs?"

Historically, the pig stronghold in Alberta has been north of Edmonton, where there were pig farms, but Brook says that is expanding dramatically.

He says the pigs pose a serious risk to mountain parks and communities in Alberta, turning the wild pig problem from a rural issue into an urban one.

"They're spreading and we're seeing some (at) locations less than 15 to 20 kilometres away from the mountain parks, and I don't think it's going to be very long before we start to see (them) popping in some of the mountain parks like Jasper and Banff and going into towns and cities as well," he said.

The animals pose all kinds of issues, Brook says, including extensive damage to native ecosystems.

Wild pigs tear the ground apart searching for insect larvae and vegetable roots.

They wallow in mud and contaminate the soil, which can not only make people sick but can also destroy water quality.

"Most importantly, they can carry and spread disease, and these diseases can spread to humans, to pets, to livestock and to wildlife, and so that's certainly, to my view, the biggest concern about these things – their ability to potentially obtain and breed diseases and parasites," Brook said.

"Deer and elk will come and graze on some grass and they leave you can't even tell they were there. Pigs, you can tell they've been there because it looks like a bomb went off."

Ruiping Luo, conservation specialist with the Alberta Wilderness Association, says she's concerned about the impact super pigs would have on national parks and mountain communities.

"I can imagine that if the wild boars are moving into that area, they're going to impact the ecosystem, they're going to impact the wildlife and they could potentially impact tourism and recreation because these people are here to see these beautiful mountains," she said.

Brook says control efforts on the Prairies are removing about one per cent of wild pigs but need to increase to around 60 to 70 per cent to even slow the spread.

It's difficult to know exact population numbers across the Prairies because there is limited support for research on wild pigs in Canada, Brook says.

He does, however, credit Alberta for being one of few provinces that funds scientific research on the topic.

"I've been warning about these for 14 years and begging and pleading for action, so I'm not sure why everybody's hit the snooze button and ignored it," Brook said.

"Part of the challenge with pigs is they are very much out of sight out of mind. You can ignore wild pigs all you want until you can't anymore, and so I think we're getting to the point now where they're becoming abundant enough and people are going to be hitting them on highways and roads, they're going to be seeing them in their gardens, they're going to see their crops destroyed, their favourite hiking place ripped apart, so they may not see pigs, but they're going to see those impacts."

Alberta does have a Wild Boar Control Program to help mitigate the spread of wild boar at large, including surveillance and trapping, crop insurance and a bounty program.

The Whole Sounder Trapping Incentive Program gives approved trappers $75 per set of ears per sounder, or group of pigs, and runs from April 1, 2022, to March 31, 2024.

However, Brook says hunting wild boars is one of the biggest barriers to success in the Prairies, and actually plays a massive role in helping to spread the pigs to new areas.

"You can't barbecue your way out of a wild pig problem," Brook said.

"You have to have strong government control programs and hunting, not only doesn't reduce pigs, it actually makes the problem much worse by making them nocturnal and making them more elusive."

Brook says ground trapping is a great tool, but wants to see Alberta include helicopter searches to find and remove pigs.

Minister of Agriculture RJ Sigurdson says the province's ground trapping program is one of many efforts being done to control the spread in Alberta, including a study on a group of pigs being tracked.

"We have looked at every way possible to be able to understand the movements of what the wild boar is doing in the province," he said.

"We do have one currently that is being studied actively to understand their behaviour, so it gives us a better chance of how we move forward in dealing with sounders that are moving through the province and how we as well capture those sounds when they are located."

The government has also partnered with the Alberta pork industry and University of Calgary veterinary medicine department on a large monitoring program for wild boars.

"As a department, we have a full-time staff dedicated to our wild boar control program to make sure that we're constantly working on this," Sigurdson said.

"We're going to continue to work with our partners collaboratively together to make sure that we're keeping a close eye on this and providing all resources necessary to be able to control the spread of wild boar."

If you see a wild pig you're asked to report it to the provincial government and to the Canadian Wild Pig Research Project.

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