Reported sightings of large groups of wild pigs – known as “sounders” – in Ontario are still limited to one or two instances in the Parry Sound/Magnetawan district, although there are reported sightings across much of the rest of the province..
Government and non-governmental scientists tracking the animals’ movements believe Ontario still has the opportunity to get ahead of a serious environmental and agricultural threat.
Why it matters: Severe destruction of crops is one effect of feral pigs, but with African swine fever in other parts of the world spread by feral pigs, disease is another concern.
Unlike what was tried unsuccessfully in some southern U.S. jurisdictions, hunters in Ontario aren’t calling for increased access. Instead, they’re heeding the advice of researchers at the University of Saskatchewan’s Canadian Wild Pig Research Project (CWPRP) and indicating “this is a problem that needs to be dealt with by specialized staff” within Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF).
The imported European Wild Boar and domestic hogs – as well as the cross-breeds that are often identified in feral settings – are the same species, and the havoc they can wreak on wetland and farm landscapes is well documented from the Canadian Prairies as well as the southern U.S.
“They’re somewhat out of control” in Saskatchewan, says University of Saskatchewan PhD candidate Ruth Aschim, author of a recently-published distribution survey of wild pig populations across western Canada, Ontario and Quebec, based on 27 years of data.
That status in Saskatchewan is certainly the perception south of the border, where U.S. researchers are warning of a pending explosion of the population as a result of migration from the Prairie provinces, and a Montana media report described wild pigs “amassing” at the state’s northern border, awaiting the opportunity to cross the human-perceived but physically invisible line.
In Ontario, Aschim agreed in a recent interview with Farmtario, her study definitely found wild pig instances are more isolated than on the Prairies.
Keith Munro, wildlife biologist with the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH), says the organization has been aware for a number of years about wild pigs, but really only began to concentrate its efforts at keeping track of the animals within the past year and half. As a first step, he asked last spring and early summer through the OFAH magazine and social media channels for people to report sightings.
He got “a fair few” from central and southern Ontario, as well as eastern Ontario. He agrees this corresponds with the majority of the magazine’s readership, and with the majority of the organization’s membership.
“I would not characterize that, at all, as a random sample.” But he stresses that the MNRF has its own reporting page on its website, and he did not share any of the reports he received to the MNRF website. Yet the MNRF website received reports over the same time period corresponding with that same geographic range.
“Almost all of them were individual sightings – one or two pigs.” And they’re generally isolated, although he did receive a report of a larger group of pigs in the Parry Sound/Magnetawan area. “My impression is that these are farm escapes.”
Munro said, “we found enough, with really very little effort, to at least be concerned.”
MNRF spokesperson Erin Koen says the ministry shares Munro’s apprehension.
“We know from other places where wild boar are non-native that their populations can grow and spread relatively fast,” Koen told Farmtario. “They have a high reproductive rate, few predators, and they thrive in agricultural areas. She urged anyone who sees a feral pig to report it “so that we can get a picture of their distribution (in Ontario).”
Achim’s study didn’t track numbers, but it outlined whether or not wild pigs were present. And she couldn’t always acquire permission from landowners to pinpoint the location of reported sightings (in the majority of cases, a sighting becomes linked through a suspected escape to a wild boar or domestic swine farm in the vicinity), so her study was done on a watershed scale.
“In Ontario, what I’m finding is that they’re all in heavily populated areas for humans.” She doesn’t mean cities, but rather areas that have relatively dense rural populations. The sightings tend to occur on the forested edges of those populated rural areas.
And, as with the informal sighting surveys undertaken by OFAH and MNRF (which asks for reports to either be filed online at the iNaturalist Ontario Wild Pigs Reporting webpage, www.inaturalist.org/projects/ontario-wild-pig-reporting, or emailed to [email protected]), her long-term distribution study shows isolated populations in the southern, central and eastern portions of the province.
Escaped farm animals form basis of new feral hog groups
These animals aren’t turning up in Ontario by walking across the Manitoba border, or swimming across the Great Lakes from the U.S. They’re originating, in almost all cases, from escaped farm animals.
Under the current regime, wild pigs are seen by the government as exactly that – farm escapes. All sightings must be reported to the MNRF, which has the authority to determine if the suspected owner of the pig is not doing enough to recapture it. If that’s the case, there are specified options open to the Ministry, and one of those is allowing hunters to target the pig or pigs under a small game license.
Koen stressed private landowners have the right to protect their property from wildlife damage, including from wild pigs. Information on that is available at www.ontario.ca/page/harass-capture-or-kill-wild-animals-damaging-private-property.
Munro says OFAH would like to see the opening of small game licenses remain among MNRF’s options, but only in particular cases where they’re sure it’s only one or two animals. He notes he was told by CWPRP Principal Investigator Dr. Ryan Brook that, within two years under ideal habitat characteristics, the presence of one pregnant female wild pig can result in a population of 100 feral animals.
And parts of southern and eastern Ontario certainly would serve as ideal habitat. With an ample supply of high-quality feed from crop farms, “just the added calories (compared to wilderness settings would let the wild pigs) maximize their reproductive output, and also gives them a much better chance to survive the winter.”
When the risk exists of a larger population developing, “we, at the OFAH, would like to see a more targeted approach.” And this doesn’t translate into a request – as was done with disastrous effect in some U.S. states – to be allowed to hunt them more readily.
Specialized staff are required to deal with the problem with the goal of complete sounder removal, said Munro.
“Evidence has shown, in the U.S., that hunting actually leads to an increase in population of wild pigs,” Munro explained. In Tennessee, hunting groups lobbied for access to wild pigs after populations were detected in a few counties. Within a couple of years of the hunt’s introduction, there were populations reported in 70 counties in the state.
“They’re an exciting animal to hunt,” Munro said, “and what they’ve seen in the U.S. is that people will bring pigs into an area so there can be an expanded hunt.” But even if human-induced migration doesn’t occur, the experience in Saskatchewan indicates that migration into other areas will almost certainly happen anyway if hunting is introduced. Without removing the entire family unit, said Aschim, “pigs are smart. They will change their behaviour. If they’re targeted by hunters, they’ll likely become exclusively nocturnal. And they’ll move to another area.”
African swine fever heightens interest
Aschim says the turnout at a recent CWPRP symposium left her and her colleagues with the impression they are finally getting somewhere after several years of advocating for more resources to be dedicated to wild pig removal. She noted a previous, first-time event in 2016 attracted mainly researchers, mainly from Canada’s west. But the follow-up event last month attracted many more government officials from across the wild pigs’ range, including Ontario and Quebec.
“It finally felt like we were getting into a totally different perspective in terms of the priority given to this,” she said.
The reason for the increased interest? It wasn’t due to any of their increased efforts to get the message through. Instead, she suggests, “it took the looming threat of African swine fever (arriving on Canadian shores) to really light that fire.”
Wild pig populations have been identified in eastern Europe as the cross-border transmission agent for the potentially devastating ASF in its most recent outbreak.
With this heightened interest, Aschim, Munro and Koen are all confident that, in Ontario, there exists an opportunity to tackle the problem early. “The invasive potential and risks to the environment that wild pigs pose is taken seriously by the ministry,” Koen said, “and we will continue to work with the public, stakeholders, and partnering agencies to prevent the escape/release and spread of these animals as well as to locate and remove them from the wild when required.”