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Environment

NWT keeps watch for wild pigs, devastating to the environment


A wild pig researcher warned the NWT on Monday of “devastating” consequences should the invasive species cross the southern border.

Ryan Brook, a University of Saskatchewan professor and head of the Canadian Wild Pig Research Project, said he didn’t truly understand the impact of wild pigs until he witnessed a landscape in south Texas “devastated” by them.

“I’ve studied pigs for a long time, and I didn’t really get the impact until I looked out into this totally soundless landscape,” said Brook.

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Invasive wild pigs plagued the area, destroying native species and leaving the land still and lifeless.

The pigs, notorious pests in the southern United States, are increasingly a problem on the northern half of the continent, too. Brook’ recent research documents pig sightings in the northern reaches of Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia. Pigs range hundreds of kilometres – and are gradually appearing closer to the NWT’s southern border.

Researchers take an aerial survey of wild pigs
Researchers take an aerial survey of wild pigs. Photo: Submitted

Brook presented on the risk of wild pigs to the Northwest Territories in a webinar hosted by the NWT Council on Invasive Species, Pests, and Pathogens on Monday. He said the chance of pigs crossing into the territory is low, but the consequences would be enormous if they did.

“Our biggest pig is 650 pounds and has two giant Ginsu knives on its face,” said Brook.

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Experts rank feral pigs among the world’s worst invasive species. When wild pigs move into an area, they destroy agriculture, spoil woodlands, and prey on other species like ground-nesting birds and deer. They also spread diseases to established populations.

“They’re the most dangerous invasive animal on the planet,” he said.

Brook’s research documents how feral pigs have spread across Canada since 1990, after the federal government introduced wild boar from Europe for crossbreeding with domestic pigs. The plan was to sell the hybrid meat to luxury restaurants overseas. As a result, Canadian wild pigs are a mix between wild boar and domesticated species like pot-bellied pigs.

Some farmers turned the pigs loose when the hybrid meat market failed to take off. Other pigs escaped, either by leaping fences or burrowing underneath them. In the decades since, their numbers have multiplied exponentially.

Female wild pigs give birth to an average of six pups per litter in two litters each year. When they establish in an area, they breed until the land is overrun.

“Saskatchewan is well on track to have more pigs than people,” said Brook.

‘They change ecosystems’

The swelling pig population hasn’t yet migrated to the NWT. They’ve come as close as 200 kilometres to the south, but nobody has spotted a pig near the territory’s southern border in years.

Rob Gau, manager of biodiversity and conservation at the NWT’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources, found the territory’s southern border was pig-free on a surveillance flight this fall.

But the animals may impact the NWT without ever crossing the 60th parallel.

A hidden trail camera capture a solitary wild pig
A hidden trail camera capture a solitary wild pig. Photos from trail cameras are one way Brook’s team records areas where pigs are present.
A hidden trail camera captures a "sounder" or group of wild pigs roaming Saskatchewan
A hidden trail camera captures a “sounder” or group of wild pigs roaming Saskatchewan.

Feral pig populations in northern Alberta overlap with migratory caribou herds. The pigs are known to carry diseases like brucellosis and tuberculosis, which they could spread to migrating caribou when the herds dip south into the prairie provinces.

Pigs’ capacity to spread disease and destroy the natural environment led the NWT to introduce regulations last year labelling the animals “pests” and allowing even those without a hunting licence to kill them on sight.

“They change ecosystems, everything from water quality to the soils. They’re truly ecological train wrecks,” said Gau.

Brook’s seminar kicked off Invasive Species Week, an awareness campaign staged by the Canadian Council on Invasive Species.

Gail Wallin, chair of the council, said now is a critical moment to raise awareness about invasive species risk in Canada’s North.

There are currently far fewer invasive species in the territories than the rest of Canada, but that could change – and quickly.

“There are species that weren’t invasive because the winters kept them in check,” said Wallin.

“But you also have warming climates: things that couldn’t have survived there 10 years ago have a much better chance of surviving because of the warming winters. Species that are native to BC, Alberta, or Saskatchewan may move north because the conditions are warmer.”

Pigs adjust to hunting

Wallin said the most common way governments learn about invasive species is by people reporting them. And it’s reporting – not hunting – that will stop the spread if pigs arrive in the NWT.

“You can’t take out just one or two, you have to take out the whole group,” she said.

Gau said that’s why the Department of Environment and Natural Resources made it mandatory to report any pig sightings in the territory.

Brook warns that sport hunting may make the situation worse.

“There’s no evidence that sport hunting is part of a viable solution here in Canada,” he said.

“Sport harvest of wild pigs has been part of the problem. It’s broken up groups of pigs and spread them across the landscape. It’s made them wary and more nocturnal … They adjust to hunting pressure.”

Brook said there’s a slim chance wild pigs turn up in the NWT. But with warming temperatures, he and other experts recommend the territory take precautions to avoid the consequences felt in places where pigs run rampant, from the Canadian prairies to the south of Texas.

“It’s one of those things that has the potential to get very serious, very fast,” he said.

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