As wild pigs spread, Ontario braces for an 'ecological trainwreck'
Province is urging people to report sightings of the animals
Animal experts with the Ontario government are asking the public to help track the number and location of wild pigs amid concerns they will decimate farm crops and damage sensitive wetlands.
A wild pig is the term used to describe the hybrid offspring of the domestic swine and the imported Eurasian wild boar.
Wild boar were imported to Ontario in the 1980s and 1990s to diversify livestock production, but some have escaped from farm operations. So have domestic pigs, which over generations turn feral.
Experts say wild pigs can reach a weight of 100 kilograms. Since last fall, when Ontario's Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) started formally collecting reports of sightings, there have been 28 — including two in eastern Ontario.
Last November, someone reported seeing a wild pig in Lefaivre, Ont., an hour east of Ottawa. Then this May, a camera mounted on a trail in Plantagenet township, about 70 kilometres southeast of the city, captured a photograph of the animal.
"Wild pigs are ecological trainwrecks," said Ruth Aschim, a PhD student at the University of Saskatchewan who has been researching the animal.
According to a study Aschim led and which was recently published in Nature Scientific Reports, there has been a rapid expansion in the range of both the wild boar and its hybrid offspring — including in Ontario, where their range has increased nine per cent annually since the boars were introduced..
Scientists in Ontario have no idea how many wild pigs there are, however, which is why the province has turned to the public for help.
"That is the really big question now," said Erin Koen, an MNRF research scientist in Peterborough, Ont.
"We are in the early stages, but having the public with eyes on the ground is really important to us to get an estimate and find out where they are."
Despite the lack of population data, Koen argues their numbers are growing due to the high reproductive rate of pigs, which can give birth when they're as young as six months.
"One female wild pig can be the source of 100 offspring in just two years," she said. "It doesn't take long for one pig to have a whole lot of pigs."
'Eat just about anything'
It's the animal's eating habits that pose the greatest threat, Koen said.
"They are very destructive because they like to eat just about anything we grow. So if they got into your corn field, they would destroy the crop," she said.
That's something that's happening on a wide scale in the southern United States and the Canadian prairies, she added.
The pigs also trample sensitive habitat by rooting up the soil for plants, small reptiles and amphibians.
"They destroy the wetland, and that disturbs the area for other native species that depend on it, plants and animals alike." Koen said.
Once established, wild pigs are hard to eradicate because they have few natural predators. They're also both nocturnal and smart, Koen said, which means they're good at avoiding human contact.
Koen said it's premature for the government to forge a population control plan without first getting a better idea of the number of wild pigs.
She said it will be up to the province to decide if it wants to use control measures. Other jurisdictions have relied on ground traps and controlled hunting, which Koen said haven't been very successful.