Imagine with me. Let’s set the scene. Open on the woods in central Canada. Somewhere in Saskatchewan, north of the treeline, but still in farm country. We’re wandering near a pork farm. Suddenly: the farmer opened the gate, and I heard the voice of the living creature say, “Oink!” I looked, and there before me was a pale pig! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by digging up crops, famine, and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.
In a similar vein, Mackenzie Clarke recalls years ago, before she was a Master’s student in Earth, Environmental and Geographic Sciences at UBCO, the terror of it all. Though she was younger, she already was a seasoned field worker, used to the trials and tribulations of life in the woods. But she wasn’t prepared for the destructive, cryptic aliens of the central Canadian woods.
She was participating in a study as a part of her work at the University of Saskatchewan, where she completed her undergraduate degree in Environmental Biology. She explained, “I was working one day, going to pick up a dropped GPS collar.” The collar, one used to track wild animals, wasn’t picking up a signal, but Clarke and her colleagues knew its general location. They had been searching in a grid in a small area for a while, thirty minutes, when she “looked up, and there was a pig, it had been sitting there the whole time and it didn’t run away. Once we locked eyes, the pig got up and started charging [at] me.” Four hundred-plus pounds of fury headed straight towards her—Clarke screamed, and the pig veered off and away into the woods. But the point is there: wild pigs are out there, unseen, watching. Prepared to wreak havoc at a moment’s notice.
It started long ago, in a simpler time. In an effort to diversify agriculture in the 1980’s, the Canadian government started offering farmers stock of wild boar. But after a crash in the price of pork, many farmers opened their gates and let them out into the bush. But even if it hadn’t been for that, the pigs still would be out there. The creatures, smarter than nearly all other domestic animals, are both crafty and determined, and escape easily. Soon, they habituate back to nature, growing back their shaggy coats and tusks within a few generations of escape.
Wild pigs, Clarke mentions, is a term ascribed to the invasive species of pigs that have run rampant over much of central North America. A mix of wild boar, native to Eurasian and North Africa, and domestic pigs, or simply domestic pigs that have escaped and adapted themselves to the wild lifestyle, are slowly expanding across the country. Now, they have arrived in British Columbia.
Wild pigs have been wreaking havoc in the Canadian prairies for a few decades. After the escapes and releases of the 80’s, the species spread around the landscape. In the early 2000’s, sightings became more common. The problem though, Clarke says, is that they are lurking menacingly in the shadows, well hidden: by the time sightings started happening, the pigs were already well established. “This is typical for many invasive species. That once people start to commonly see them on the landscape, it’s almost too late,” Clarke said.
Certainly, it was too late to save many a farmer’s crops in a given year. A sounder–the name given to a group, which usually consists of several sows and their young–can destroy a crop in a short time. By digging up root crops like potatoes, or eating and trampling corn, these swine represent a serious blight on the farmers of the prairies.
Not to mention, they are not great for livestock either. Many farmers use these corn fields as winter range for their cows, though the pigs do not have a care in the world for that. Beyond the destruction of cattle range, the pigs turn their intimidating sights on the cows themselves. Clarke explained a sounder, or even one angry boar, can scare off a herd of cows with ease, and even pick off the occasional calf or lamb to fill their voracious bellies. And don’t think you're safe from their terror in your yard: Clarke mentioned a story from one Prairie farmer who told researchers that a large boar cornered and killed their adult German Shepherd.
Moreover, at up to 600 pounds (note: the largest pig caught by Clarke and her colleagues at the Canadian Wild Pig Research Group, led by Dr. Ryan Brook at the University of Saskatchewan, was nearly this weight), the menace of wild swine extends its terrifying reach to the creatures of the forest as well. In the U.S. south, where wild pigs have caused severe damage to ecosystems, Clarke says pigs have caused documented harm by devouring deer fawns and ground nesting birds. Clarke says some researchers working in the south say that many of the forests overrun by pigs sing nothing but pure silence on a spring afternoon, for the birds are gone. They even represent a threat to larger animals: this research shows Elk have not yet developed an adverse reaction to pigs and have been documented feeding together in close quarters. This means there is potential for one of the many diseases that pigs carry to spread to wild ungulate populations.
The real worry that researchers like Clarke and Brook have, though, is that the swine’s reign of terror is expanding outwards. Wild pigs can have up to six young in a litter and breed multiple times through the year. Though invasive populations have long been common and terrorizing to people across the United States, populations in the Canadian prairies have been ominously growing in recent years, with potential to cause more damage. In the U.S. alone, wild pigs cause $2.5 billion of damage a year.
Now, there have been several sightings throughout British Columbia, including in areas around Williams Lake and Vernon. Despite their formidable constitutions–the pigs do not seem fazed by Canadian winters–Clarke stated it’s unlikely they crossed the mountains like the destructive colonizers of the past. Research shows that most populations of wild pigs are strongly associated with the prevalence of boar farms around the area. Clarke explained B.C. is ripe for the pigs’ taking as well, with its concentrated valleys of agricultural development and large areas of uninhabited wilderness, “There’s enough big areas of wilderness that they could come out, feed, and go back into the woods and disappear.”
Most terrifying though, like in the War of the Worlds, is that this alien species might have humanity hopelessly outgunned. Shooting a few pigs only causes the remaining individuals to switch to being nocturnal and teaches them how to avoid hunters. Large corral traps can be used to capture whole sounders at once, but they are finicky and require immense patience to use. Clarke says there’s some hope–either by employing “Judas pigs,” who wear a GPS collar and lead researchers to the others, or by potentially novel use of thermal imaging drones to track populations. But despite humanity's best efforts, the pigs march onwards.
“We’ll be alright though,” some might say. “I’ve never seen a wild pig.” But researchers are sounding the alarm: they are here. According to Clarke, in rural municipalities that have documented pig populations, 90% of residents say that they have never seen one. So, next time you’re walking in the woods, or tending to your beloved potato farm, remember: pigs are out there. Watching you. Waiting. Biding their time.