Saskatoon

Is Sask. in the midst of a wild boar crisis? It depends who you ask

There is no consensus on whether Saskatchewan is in the midst of a massive wild boar expansion.

No broad consensus on state of wild boar in Saskatchewan

Wild boar are described as large, aggressive, clever and relentless. (CBC)

Arlen Brekkaas says it seemed like a simple plan.

Load up his truck and hunting gear, drive east from Dawson Creek in northern B.C. to Saskatchewan. Hit the provincial border and then bag a wild boar.

He'd fill his freezer with wild meat and help beat back the rising tide of feral hogs threatening the very future of the Canadian breadbasket.

Brekkaas had seen the headlines:

"Feral swine amass at Montana's northern border"

"More wild boars than people possible in Saskatchewan"

"Wild pigs invade Canadian provinces"

A simple plan, until Brekkaas began reaching out to hunters and the provincial government to find the best place to find the wild boars.

Wild boar in Saskatchewan (Submitted by Ryan Brook)

"I started trying to find out if anybody there would want to point them out. It sure seems like there's a major problem with them," he said.

Brekkaas canvassed Saskatchewan hunters on social media sites. He says he reached out to the provincial government, three times.

In the end, no one wanted to tell him where he could find wild boar. No one referred him to boar hot spots, there were no references to desperate landowners under siege by packs of feral pigs.

"I'm feeling fairly disillusioned about this whole thing," he said.

"The only real conclusion that I could come to is it's not really that big a problem. Nobody wants help."

Brekkaas cancelled his hunting trip.

So, what exactly is happening with wild boar in this province?

It depends on who you asked.

'They can be found'

Kelly Readman knows where to find wild boars.

For the past quarter-century he's run Wild Boar Adventures on his land east of North Battleford. Readman has about 1,000 acres that ring a small lake, cut with coulees and sheltered by heavy stands of trees.

Readman raises boars. At any given time he has upwards of 80 roaming his small forest. He said hunters from across Canada and the northern U.S. come to his property to hunt them.

They don't fly into the tops of trees and hide at night.- Kelly Readman

He questions the narrative of wild boars running wild. If they are truly such a growing concern, why does he get 300 hunters a year wanting to hunt wild boar on his property?

Readman has read the articles and knows the dire warnings about the growth of the wild boar population in the province. Most notably is a projection by University of Saskatchewan biologist Ryan Brook, who warns that if the feral pig population continues unchecked, someday soon there could be more pigs than people in the province.

Kelly Readman says about 300 hunters a year come to his ranch to hunt wild boar. (CBC)

Readman doesn't accept the findings because it doesn't correspond to his research and personal experience.

"The numbers, I think, are way out of whack," he said.

"We don't see pigs running all over the place."

Readman doesn't accept that the boars in the wild are so smart that they can consistently elude professional hunters.

"They don't fly into the tops of trees and hide at night," he said. "They live, they breathe, they drink, they eat. So they can be found."

Official sources

Readman isn't the only one expressing misgivings with with Brooks's porcine projections.

Ray Orb is president of the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities. There are 296 rural municipalities scattered across the province.

Orb says he is not aware of a single RM raising wild boar as an issue.

SGI tracks crashes involving wildlife across the province. The government insurer's statistics include collisions with birds, deer, moose and domestic animals.

A spokesperson says that the number of wild boar-involved crashes is low enough that they're simply grouped in with "other wildlife."

The most recent map indicating the location of wild pig populations in Saskatchewan (Submitted by Ryan Brook)

The Saskatchewan Crop Insurance Corporation manages the province's feral wild boar program. Its executive director also takes a dim view of the numbers and projections.

"In the past ten years we've had approximately 25 crop insurance claims from wildlife damage where wild boar was listed as the primary contributor," said Darby Warner.

"In those 25 claims, we've paid out about $96,000 total. To put that in perspective, in 2016 we paid out $36 million in wildlife damage compensation for wildlife and waterfowl that year."

The province has concerns about wild boar because it's seen the damage the animals have caused in other jurisdictions. To this end, it has hunter/trapper teams that will go into an area where they have been sighted and then try and remove them.

Those teams caught 85 boars in 2017 and 159 in 2018.

Warner disputes that the boars represent a crisis, for now or the future.

"I certainly don't see it that way," he said.

The province has identified five areas where there are active boar populations. It's working in two of the areas right now.

Warner believes that climate and other predators will help in the long term.

"We believe these growth projections do not take into account the impact of Saskatchewan's weather and predators as they assist in curbing the wild boar population," he said.

"Deep snow in winter gives the distinct advantage to our natural predators."

Sounding the alarms

Ryan Brook has none of these misgivings. The University of Saskatchewan biologist started tracking wild boars in the province more than two decades ago and says the province is in the middle of an emerging crisis.

Do we wait until we have hundreds of millions in crop damage?- Ryan Brook

Brook says that getting traction on the issue with the public and politicians is a challenge. Part of this is because he's warning about a future crisis.

Ryan Brook says Sask. should act before wild boars become more of a problem. (CBC)

He's not suggesting that feral pigs are running wild through the streets of Regina and Saskatoon.

At least not yet.

"So do we wait until we're at $400 million a year (in crop damage)?," he said.

"I mean, what's the point where we decide to take serious concentrated action in Saskatchewan? Do we wait until we have a million pigs? Do we wait until we have hundreds of millions in crop damage?"

Brook collects data on the pigs using a variety of means, including GPS collars on hogs, trail cameras and sightings reported by the public.

In 2020, he'll be setting up 30 trail cameras in Saskatoon in a project involving the city and Meewasin Valley Authority.

Although the cameras are not exclusively to detect wild boar, "we expect that, during my career, I wouldn't be surprised to see wild pigs coming into the city of Saskatoon."

Estimating the boar population in the province is a challenge, but Brook says showing where the pigs have been sighted is more straightforward.

"It's a checkerboard across Saskatchewan," he said.

"The highest densities, and the most pigs, are very clearly along the forest range, especially on the eastern part of the province."

Brook rejects the government's view that climate and predators will curb the growth. The wild boar have shown over the past three decades that they can live here quite comfortably.

"A lot of folks hoped, or even expected, that they would never survive harsh Saskatchewan winters and that winter would be the limiting factor," he said.

"But as it turns out, these animals are very well adapted to the cold, they have a heavy coat of fur and longer legs than a domestic pig. They survive very well in the winter months."

Brook stands by what his research reveals.

"Our data clearly show that we're right in the middle of a massive expansion," he said.

"The reality is we're probably waiting for a crisis and that's the unfortunate part about this whole issue … very little new will be done until something dramatic happens."

About the Author

Dan Zakreski is a reporter for CBC Saskatoon.

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