It started off as a normal day of deer hunting for Ryan Brook’s colleague and his friends in Manitoba in central Canada.

But when this group of hunters came around a bend and walked into a group of several hundred feral swine, their day changed in a heartbeat.

“Save five bullets to protect yourself, shoot at everything you can and get on your snowmobile and go like hell. Get the heck out of here because I fear for our safety if these things start to charge us,” Brook said his colleague ordered the hunters.

The hunters shot every pig they could and saved just enough bullets to protect themselves, then jumped on their snowmobiles and went out of the area at 60 miles per hour, Brook shared with attendees of Iowa Swine Day.

A Growing Problem

Although stories like this may not be an everyday occurrence in Canada, the reality is the wild pig population continues to explode. Brook, an associate professor at the University of Saskatchewan, studies the reproductive ecology of wild pigs. Since he began his research and tracking of wild pigs in Canada in 2010, sounder groups (a term used to describe a group of wild pigs) have gone up considerably.

“When we first started putting out our trail cameras in 2010, a group was four to seven animals. And then pretty quickly, it was 11. Now we’ve seen sounder groups at more than four dozen, not to mention the group my friend ran into while hunting,” Brook said.

Group size isn’t the only thing that has increased since he started his research. The pigs are getting bigger, too. A 400-pound wild pig isn’t bragging rights anymore for hunters, Brook said. In his research group, they captured and euthanized a 638-pound sow. One of his graduate students was flying and spotted what he estimated to be an over 800-pound wild pig. The landowner refused the researchers access to track, but Brook heard that the landowner went out and shot it eventually, he said.

“Big animals should be no surprise up here in Canada,” he said. “Ecologically we predict it. Bergmann’s rule says as you go further north, typically for wild species, they get bigger. Big bodies are critical to success. If you’re going to survive a week at 40-below temperatures being 400, 500 or 600 pounds, you’re going to do a lot better than if you’re 40 pounds.”

Because of this, wild pigs in Canada are a real challenge to track. Trapping these pigs in panel traps isn’t easy. Brook said part of the issue is keeping the pens small enough, so the pigs can’t get a good run.

“But when those traps drop, and you can see this on YouTube, all hell breaks loose,” he added. “These things just go crazy. It is just a totally new situation for these wild pigs, some of which are certainly probably dozens of generations removed, have never been inside a fence.”

Disease Threats

Disease is a front-and-center concern as Canada’s wild pigs make their way south to the U.S. border.

“We’ve had very little disease testing of wild pigs, so we don’t really know,” Brook said. “We can’t say with any real high level of accuracy what is out there.”

A few years ago, a small sample was taken in two points in Saskatchewan, he said. The results didn’t show anything abnormal – some E. coli and salmonellas, which are pretty common among wild pig populations.

But the truth remains they don’t have a good handle on disease pressures in Canada’s wild pigs.

“If African swine fever (ASF) ever shows up – in either country – there’ll be some very hard questions asked on the domestic side, but lots of questions as to what’s going on in the wild,” Brook said.

According to his map tracking the wild pig population in Canada, there are a lot of alarm bells going off in a number of places across the entire Canada-U.S. border. That boundary is a high-risk area for movement, he said.

They may not know a lot about disease in their wild pig population, but they know the pigs move very large distances and some of the sounder groups are stacked up very close to the border.

“This is a real opportunity to be proactive rather than reactive,” Brook said. “Waiting for a problem (God help us all if ASF ever did show up), and then sort of scratching our heads saying, ‘Geez, I wonder if we should start to do something about these pigs.’ That’s way too little way too late.”

It’s time to be proactive. More pigs – bigger pigs – are all things Brook’s research predicted would happen and it has.

“When pigs expand, nobody’s surprised. Australia has around 12 million wild pigs. U.S. numbers are huge. You go anywhere where they’re at, and what do they do? They expand in numbers, cause crop damage and often carry various sorts of disease,” Brook said.

He believes Canada needs more pressure from the U.S. when it comes to controlling the wild pig population. He said he’s honestly surprised the U.S. hasn’t raised this issue more.

“I know there’s been bigger fish to fry in the last number of months, but especially with respect to African swine fever, anybody that’s raising domestic pigs in North America is going to be impacted by what happens,” Brook said. “I think there could be opportunities to ask hard questions of Canada at various levels, whether it’s producer groups, provinces or even our federal government. What’s up? Why are we seeing these things that we’re seeing?”

Farm Journal’s Pork | Jennifer Shike | October 02