Feral Swine North of the Border Threaten Montana, North Dakota
for Tri-State Livestock News
Montana’s Department of Livestock is working to raise public awareness regarding a potential invasion of Feral Swine. A growing population of wild pigs in Alberta and Saskatchewan also poses a danger to people, land and animals south of the Canadian border. Most invasive species affect only a small portion of the population or ecosystem, but not Feral Swine. Extremely destructive creatures that know no boundaries, Feral Swine have the potential to impact everyone, from agricultural to wilderness to urban areas, from bees to bears.
A Wild Pig Symposium On The Border was held October 18th in Sweet Grass Montana, with experts from the U.S. and Canada weighing in on the porcine problem, including Ryan Brook, head of Saskatchewan Wild Boar Project, Bob Brickley, rancher and chair of the Moose Mountain Wild Boar Eradication Team, Dale Nolte, National Feral Swine Initiative Coordinator for USDA/APHIS based out of Fort Collins, Colorado, John Steuber, Montana Director of Wildlife Services, and Tahnee Szymanski, DVM, Montana Assistant State Veterinarian.
Most folks tend to think of Feral Swine as a southern issue, believing that the pigs won’t thrive in cold climates, but Tahnee Szymanski says this is a myth.
“It’s a bit of an ‘old wives’ tale,’” she said. “People felt that hog populations would not be easily established where we have long, cold winters. This has been proven false; Feral Swine are doing very well north of us in Canada.”
Szymanski said that twenty to thirty years ago, Feral Swine were taken to Canada to be farmed and create hunting opportunities. This did not turn out as hoped; some pigs escaped their domestic quarters and others were turned loose when income generation did not measure up to what was expected.
“People got to the point that they just cut the fences and released the hogs,” she said, “And the population is now reaching a critical level. Certain private groups are making an effort to control them, and Alberta has made some efforts at a provincial level to reduce numbers, but Saskatchewan has nothing in place. There are individuals in Saskatchewan working to get their government to establish regulations.”
Feral Swine have been in the United States since the 1500s, when they were brought by explorers and settlers to use for food. Some pigs escaped, and many were simply allowed to roam freely, leading to established populations of Feral Swine. The Eurasian or Russian Wild Boar was introduced to the U.S. in the 1900s for sport and hunting and has interbred with the already existing swine to create a massive, fierce, bristly predator capable of causing massive destruction to property, land, livestock, wildlife and humans.
Feral Swine root and dig, creating huge holes and tearing up cropland, sod, riparian areas and wildlife habitat to eat the tender roots of plants and the grubs and bugs that live underground. Nothing is sacred, not even cemeteries. They are predatory omnivores, eating nesting birds and small animals. They roam onto highways and get hit by vehicles. With a population over five million, it is estimated that Feral Swine cause over 1.5 million dollars worth of damage in the U.S. every year.
“Feral swine eat birds, fawns, lambs, even sheep,” Szymanski said. “Texas reports Feral Swine eating calves and attacking calving cows. They destroy bee hives, dig up golf courses, lawns, crops; they have the potential to affect everyone, not just those involved in agriculture.”
Along with these physical threats, Feral Swine also pose a biological threat to humans, wildlife, and domestic livestock through the spread of diseases and parasites. Szymanski says the risk is extensive.
“Feral Swine can transmit diseases to domestic swine, such as pseudo rabies, PRRS (porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome) and swine brucellosis; we know these diseases are all present in Feral Swine in the southern U.S. These are diseases we have worked very hard to eliminate from domestic swine in Montana. We are also aware that Feral Swine contribute to the spread of African Swine Fever in China, and if that should ever be introduced to the U.S. Feral Swine could play a part in spreading it here.
“Feral Swine also carry several zoonotic diseases and parasites. Tuberculosis is a big concern; it could spread to cattle and humans. Swine brucellosis is another major concern. We know we have Brucella abortus in bison and elk populations around Yellowstone and we maintain active surveillance in that area. We’re concerned about swine brucellosis because current serologic testing doesn’t differentiate between cattle and swine brucellosis. We currently know that our risk is from Brucella abortus, but if swine brucellosis was present as well it would drastically complicate management. Feral Swine can also spread Leptospirosis and Tularemia, and parasites, such as Trichinosis.”
Feral Swine pose a real threat to wildlife also, through disease transmission, destruction of habitat and predation on many species of birds and animals. They may even pose a threat to their distant cousin, the Grizzly Bear, though this is still up for speculation. Szymanski said this was discussed at the Sweet Grass meeting.
Montana’s legislature made possession of Feral Swine and hunting them for profit illegal in 2015. The law also gave the Department of Livestock authority to deal with Feral Swine in the state. Montana’s Invasive Species Council is active in outreach and education efforts to inform citizens of the risks Feral Swine pose. Szymanski heads up the ‘Squeal on Pigs’ project and says the Department has responded to one to three calls annually since 2015.
“Most are from hunters who have spotted a stray pig that had escaped from a farm,” Szymanski said. “One was a report that someone had brought a trailer load of Feral Swine up from Texas with plans to release them on their property. We educated that person on the illegal status of Feral Swine in Montana and the pigs were all killed and used for meat.”
The state of North Dakota is also preparing for the pig possibility.
Releasing feral swine in that state is also illegal, and individuals who encounter feral swine should not destroy them unless they encounter feral swine on their own property and there is a threat of harm or destruction of property. As soon as possible following destruction of the animal, but always within 24 hours, the individual must notify the State Board of Animal Health (BoAH) at 701-328-2655. If the office is closed, after-hours contact information will be provided by calling the same number. BoAH staff will make arrangements to have the entire carcass collected and provide any special instructions, accordig to the state BoAH.
To date there are no known populations of Feral Swine in Montana, but Szymanski believes the potential risk is real.
“With the increasing numbers of Feral Swine in Alberta and Saskatchewan and their ever widening range it is possible for migration from Canada; Feral Swine know no boundaries. There is also a risk that they will be hauled in from out of state by individuals who are not aware of the law or of the destruction they cause.
“Having everybody recognize that they have a stake in it is very important,” Szymanski said. “It’s not just an issue for one sector of our state. Raising awareness will help us to be able to respond sooner and keep the Feral Swine out of Montana.”
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Outtagrass Cattle Co. cartoon by Jan Swan Wood for the June 19, 2021, edition of Tri-State Livestock News