"Major eco-threat may be coming from the north"


November 6, 2019

These two maps show the spread of feral pigs in the U.S. over a 36- year period. The destructive wild pigs, moving south from the prairie provinces of Canada, pose a potential threat to agriculture and wildlife in Montana. Montana's Department of Livestock is charged with eradicating the feral pigs, described as "one of the world's most invasive species."

Columnist's note: A few weeks ago a neighbor asked me to attend a meeting in Sweet Grass about feral swine. The invasive critters are also called feral pigs, wild hogs, razorbacks, Eurasian boars and a lot of expletives by farmers, ranchers, hunters and others. Any pig not penned or under human control is generally regarded as feral.

The meeting was attended by 60-70 folks mostly from the U.S. They gathered to hear regional and national experts explain the challenges of dealing with feral pigs which now number six million in 35 U.S. states. The prairie provinces in Canada all have major feral pig populations and wild pigs are steadily moving southward. Here's some of what I learned about this invasive species heading south.

Feral Pigs: "The World's Worst Invasive Species"

-World Conservation Union

Pigs were brought to North America in 1500. In the 1900's strains of wild pigs were introduced for hunting in some southern U.S. states and hunting them is still popular. In Canada a 1990's move to 'diversify agriculture' introduced new breeds of pigs. When the new market failed to materialize, pigs escaped or were turned in to the wild. Over time, in both countries, pigs interbred, expanding their range and numbers.

Damage in the U.S. from feral pigs is an estimated $1.5 billion per year with about $800 million lost on farms and ranches from ruined crops, torn up pastures and fields and confrontations between domestic livestock over food and water resources. $36 million in losses results from collisions between vehicles and feral pigs.

In some areas feral pigs destroyed 95% of the understory, stripping the areas of vegetation and fouling the water. The average male feral pig weighs around 200 pounds and females slightly less and eat 3-5% of their body weight daily. The pigs carry 30 diseases and 40 parasites, some of which affect humans, livestock and/or wildlife. The pigs are omnivores (will eat just about anything) and compete for food with big game and domestic livestock.

Feral pigs are opportunistic and adaptable. One Canadian presenter explained, "We didn't think pigs could survive our cold winters." He described "pigloos," a nest of sticks the pigs make for themselves and their young during winter. Feral pigs typically produce two litters per year of 4-12 piglets and reproduce year round.

To date there have been two sightings of feral pigs at or near the northern border of Montana. For the last two winters sightings were reported in an area between Phillips and Valley Counties. APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) is an agency of the USDA charged with investigating and providing resources to eradicate or control feral pigs. John Steuber, the state director for Montana, said the agency flew 13.25 hours looking for pigs south of Saco but found none. "Snow cover for tracking from the air was good," he explained, "but at this point we are calling the sightings "unsubstantiated.""

Last summer, in Alberta, north of the Milk River, eight feral pigs were sighted. Four were shot and the others escaped. A Canadian presenter in Sweet Grass told, "Unless you can totally eradicate a nest (or sounder) of the pigs, the ones who escape will be smarter and harder to kill the next time." Steuber, head of the state APHIS group, said he believes the closest pigs in Alberta are "still about 400 miles north of the border." In Saskatchewan the pigs are likely closer, expanding their presence each year by an area about the size of Blaine County.

The response to feral pigs in Canada is mixed. Alberta has a provincial plan to eradicate them. Saskatchewan, with more feral pigs, has no plan. Some ranchers and farmers in Saskatchewan organized to eradicate the pigs. A group of ag operators near Moose Mountain Provincial Park finally eradicated the pigs in that area. The effort involved about a dozen people who used $150,000 of their own resources during more than a decade it took to eradicate the pests.

"Squeal on Pigs!" is part of a campaign to eradicate feral pigs in Montana

In 2015 the Montana legislature passed laws to keep feral pigs out of the state. The new laws created processes for eradicating pigs that might make their way to the state. Montana's approach assumes hunting actually increases the numbers and spread of wild pigs. That's based on the experiences of Texas, Georgia, Oklahoma and other states (see graphics of spread of feral pigs from 1982-2018) where hunting wild pigs is legal but numbers of them keep increasing.

Bruce Anderson is a resident of rural Blaine County and member of the Montana Invasive Species Council, an advisory board to the Montana governor. Anderson said he thinks northern Montanans will eventually have to deal with feral pigs. He's convinced the only way to remove the threat is to eradicate the feral pigs when encountered. Complete eradication seems to be the course planned by Montana officials.

The 2015 law also makes it unlawful to transport or release feral pigs in the state. One USDA presenter said, "A lot of these feral pigs are spreading at 70 mph as people trap and introduce them for sport hunting." Montana's laws carry a stiff fine for introducing feral pigs.

Montana landowners can shoot feral pigs on land they own or control. Shootings and sightings of feral pigs should be reported. Shootings and sightings can be investigated by state personnel to assess how to eradicate the pigs. To report shootings or sightings of feral pigs, call 406-444-2976. That Helena phone number connects to "Squeal on Pigs!"-a campaign to educate Montanans about the threat of feral pigs and provide a mechanism to respond to the threat. The "24 -7" phone is manned so reports can be taken and followed up by appropriate responders.


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