Feral swine bomb: the battle against an invasive species

Click to play video: 'How wild pigs are threatening Canada’s ecosystems and economy' How wild pigs are threatening Canada’s ecosystems and economy
WATCH: Millions of wild pigs are eating and destroying their way through Canada and the United States, causing billions in crop and ecological damage every year. Another concern is their ability to spread disease. As Candace Daniel reports for The New Reality, if feral hogs make domestic pigs sick – it could hurt the $24 billion pork industry and the Canadian economy – Mar 12, 2022

It’s just after dawn and Anthony “Tony” DeNicola is packing up his UTV with gear to fight an invasive species.

Today he’s on a farm in South Carolina to track wild boars, which have been multiplying and destroying the land.

DeNicola set up a trap deep into the woods and overnight, he was able to catch 40 of them.

“Pigs are native in Europe and in throughout Asia, however, in the United States, … they are not,” said DeNicola, who is the CEO of White Buffalo Inc., a non-profit specializing in invasive species.

Tony DeNicola is taking down a trap he set to catch feral pigs in South Carolina. Peter Leininger/Global News

“They’re invasive. … So literally, they are a worldwide pest species,” he added.

Wild pigs pose a serious threat. So much so, that the U.S. Department of Agriculture says we could witness a feral swine bomb. That’s because they reproduce quickly, wreaking havoc on crops and ecologically sensitive areas. The spread of the wild pig population can significantly impact the economy and human health. They can cause an ecological disaster.

In the U.S., there are millions of feral hogs eating their way through roughly 40 states, causing about US$2.5 billion every year in property and crop damage.

It’s happening in Canada as well, though the data on the financial impact is scarce — and it’s not just a financial impact.

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“There are many different diseases that they could carry. One, in particular, is called Brucella. It’s a bacterial disease, and it can infect both humans and pigs,” said Brian Stevens, a wildlife pathologist for the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative, Ontario/Nunavut region.

Read more: Saskatchewan experts urge action as invasive wild pigs run rampant in province

Feral hogs can be a host to a list of diseases, harmful bacteria and parasites, including pseudorabies and the Hepatitis E virus.

“Our biggest fear is African swine fever,” said Jurgen Preugschas, a Canadian pork producer. “It’ll devastate a farm.”

Preugschas, 73, is a part-owner of a pig farm in Mayerthorpe, Alta. He said he tried to warn government officials in the 1980s of the looming threat and was ignored. “Of course, I was pooh-poohed and told that this was never going to be an issue.”

Justin Brunelle/Global News

Jurgen Preugschas is a pork producer and part-owner of a farm in Alberta.

He said he is deeply concerned that African swine fever (ASF) could be spread by wild invasive pigs loose on the land.

“If you have wild pigs … come onto your yard, say, and then whatever disease they may be carrying transmits to your animals, then it puts the whole industry at risk,” he told Global News’ The New Reality.

ASF is a viral disease that is specific to pigs. It can’t infect humans. But it’s a disease that is spreading worldwide. The Dominican Republic reported its first case in domestic swine in 2021, and there have been positive cases in Europe but mostly among the wild boar population.

“It has a high mortality rate. … It can just go in and wipe out a vast majority of the pigs in a short amount of time,” Stevens said.

Brian Stevens in a wildlife pathologist based at the University of Guelph in Ontario. Brent Rose/Global News

So far, there hasn’t been a registered case of ASF in Canada or the U.S. but it’s a reportable disease. If there is even one case in either domestic or feral swine, Canadian borders could be closed.

The pork industry generates upwards of $24 billion to the economy every year, according to the Canadian government. Border closures would have a significant impact on the industry.

“You’re going to have devastating effects for the economy,” said Stevens, who is based at the University of Guelph in Ontario. “The livelihood of all of these pork producers is going to be potentially destroyed by this disease making its way in.”

Read more: USask Professor creates pig plotted map for locating wild boars on Google Earth

Native to Eurasia, wild boars were introduced into Canada in the 1980s and 1990s to diversify the livestock industry. Over the years, some were able to escape while others may have been intentionally let loose.

Part of the reason they are such a concern is that they are difficult to get rid of.

Hunting may seem like an obvious solution, but in reality, it has only made the problem worse, according to experts.

Some states and provinces have either banned or have rules governing wild hog hunting.

“There’s never been a demonstrated situation where recreational hunting can control feral pigs,” said DeNicola, who is also a wildlife ecologist.

Surveillance video of feral swine around a trap set by Tony DeNicola to capture them. Courtesy/Tony DeNicola

“In fact, populations continued to increase. So, unless you’re systematically and professionally trapping and removing pigs in the landscape, you’ll never catch up.”

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That’s because pigs are smart and if you don’t kill the entire sounder — a term used to describe a group of pigs — then the ones that survive could spread out and move locations.

It also allows them to teach their offspring how to avoid hunters.

Read more: Wild pigs an ‘ecological train wreck’ for Canada, especially in the Prairies: study

So DeNicola is running trials of different feed combinations that might attract the wild pigs and not other woodland creatures. He hopes to continue his work and one day release the findings on the best way to trap the feral swine using treated bait.

For Rachael Sharp in Allendale, S.C., she and her family have been doing everything they can to get feral swine off her property.

“It’s a really bad problem, and I do often feel like I’m fighting a losing battle,” she said.

Sharp is the farm manager of Sharp and Sharp Certified Seed, which specializes in seeds like soybeans and corn.

Wild hogs have eaten and destroyed acres of farmland at Rachael Sharp’s seed farm. Peter Leininger/Global News

The farm has lost hundreds of thousands of dollars to feral pig damage. Sharp recalls a time in 2019, when she and her father went to check on a cornfield they had just planted. When they arrived, they found it had been destroyed.

“We ended up replanting that field and … 10 days later, it was gone again,” said Sharp, whose farm has been in her family for three generations. “We lost 220 acres of corn that year.”

For Sharp, they are still experiencing financial losses year after year.

“We don’t want the hogs out here. We don’t want them in anybody’s backyard,” she told The New Reality, adding, “I don’t want to risk anything ever happening to this place.”