Feral swine threatening to cross the northern border from Saskatchewan and Alberta could cause millions of dollars of crop damage and decimate ecosystems in Montana. State and U.S. agencies say they’re ready if that happens, but farmers and ranchers want more.
Producers want the government to pressure Canadian officials to step up their management of the wild pigs before they move south.
The growing concern is that feral pigs from Alberta and Saskatchewan could make their way across the border. Their migration would bring diseases that could affect livestock and cause millions of dollars in crop damage.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, feral pigs already account for more than $2.5 billion worth of crop and livestock damage across the country.
Last week, roughly 50 ranchers and farmers gathered a stone’s throw from the U.S.-Canadian border in Sweet Grass. The group came together for the first “wild pig symposium on the border.”
Maggie Nutter, part of the Marias River Livestock Association, organized last week’s meeting educate producers about the issue north of the border.
“And I thought, ‘You know, we live here on the border. We’ll be the first ones to suffer if they come down from Canada,’” she said.
In Alberta and Saskatchewan, feral pig sightings have been confirmed within 20 miles of the border. There have also been false alarms in Montana.
Saskatchewan rancher Bob Brickley was one of the speakers at last week’s meeting. He’s seen the damage feral hogs can bring, and knows firsthand just how hard they can be to eradicate. He’s part of the Saskatchewan Moose Mountain Wild Boar Eradication Team, a group of ranchers and farmers.
“I often joke that I have a master’s in wild boar eradication, but the only place that’s recognized is in the Moose Mountain Park, by the pigs we’ve killed, so I really don't have much of a title," he said.
Moose Mountain Provincial Park is in eastern Saskatchewan. The pigs showed up there in the early ‘90s, when the Canadian government was making a nationwide push to diversify the agricultural economy.
Ranchers began raising exotic animals like emus and feral pigs from Europe and Asia, but markets for wild pig meat never materialized and many farmers let their animals go. Feral hogs reproduce quickly, and in just a few years, a dozen loose hogs can turn into hundreds.
Brickley and his team began hunting the animals with bolt-action rifles, which proved to be incredibly unsuccessful.
“We couldn’t find them,” he said. “We could see their tracks, and their tracks were hardly visible. When they crossed, they always traveled single file, and it just looks like one coyote had crossed.”
Brickley eventually partnered with researchers at the University of Saskatchewan to eradicate pigs in Moose Mountain Park. His team and researchers now use planes and helicopters equipped with infrared gear to track down groups of feral swine.
They’ve also used GPS collars to track individuals, which researchers call the “Judas” pigs, back to their groups. This allows Brickley’s team to kill entire groups at a time. Killing just a few is problematic: The tactic causes survivors to scatter, expanding the pigs’ territory.
Associate Professor Ryan Brook said feral pigs were eradicated in Moose Mountain Park using this technique.
“Certainly very, very time consuming, and as someone asked, very, very expensive as well, so we’ve done it on small scales to try it,” he said.
“We’ve tried to bring in the government to try and be involved in this, and that’s sort of a bit of a — what’s the polite term? Shit show, I guess what they say where I come from.”
Brook said individual farmers and universities have taken on this work because there’s little interest from the Canadian government in developing a national management plan. He added that Alberta is the only province to manage the animals so far. Alberta officials are in the midst of a three-year pilot program with hopes to solidify its management practices early next year.
Montana Public Radio couldn’t reach management officials in Saskatchewan in time for this story, but Canadian researchers like Brook say there’s nothing being done to manage wild boar outside of farmland in the province.
The threat of feral hogs crossing the border is a serious issue, according to Montana State Assistant Veterinarian Tahnee Szymanksi. She said the state Legislature passed several laws in 2015 preventing residents from hunting, possessing or transporting feral pigs. The laws also gave the Montana Department of Livestock authority to manage feral swine.
“That bill was really a coordinated effort between our office and Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and it was very strategic,” she said.
While private landowners and leaseholders can shoot feral swine on their property, only the Department of Livestock and other authorized officials are allowed to kill feral swine throughout the state. Szymanski said the Legislature took this approach after looking at other states that had opened up hunting as part of their eradication plans. Once an economy surrounding wild hog hunting is established, the financial incentive is as hard to eradicate as the hogs themselves. Hunters have also been known to illegally spread populations.
Montana’s policies have given sheep rancher and Montana Woolgrowers Association member Dave McEwen a little bit of comfort on this side of the border, but he and other local ranchers want some kind of organized push on the Canadian government to act.
“I know from their other predator issues, we’ll be moving a lot of tablets before that’ll ever happen,” he said.
Last week’s meeting may be the spark to get the larger pressure campaign going. The Marias River Livestock Association hopes to hold another meeting in the future, and the threat of feral hogs moving into Montana is expected to part of the Montana Invasive Species Council’s Billings meeting later this fall.