Wisdom of wild boar farming questioned in light of feral pig problem

· The Pulse

While Alberta is grappling with the destructive threat of a growing population of feral wild boar and fears they could soon invade urban areas, there are farmers in the Edmonton area and elsewhere in the province who are still raising them.

Whether they escaped or were let loose, the wild boar pest problem began on farms, and it is with wild boar farms that a strategy for eradicating the animal should start, reasons the Alberta Wilderness Association.

"There should be no more wild boar farming in Alberta. There still is, and that's, we think, very misguided and has resulted in the problem we have now," said Carolyn Campbell, conservation director for the association.

The wild boar is an animal of ambiguous classification, at once a spurned pest, a trophy game animal for hunters, and an exotic livestock species. The other red meat never did capture a huge share of the market in Alberta, but demand from restaurants and specialty shops has kept farms in operation since wild boar were introduced in the 1980s. Right now, Alberta Agriculture reports there are 13 producers in the province, including some in Edmonton's neighbouring Parkland and Strathcona counties.

For Campbell, so long as people are breeding wild boar and cultivating a market for them, no eradication program could be completely successful. Given how difficult to keep the animals from breaching their pens, it would be more cost-effective for the province to buy the boar from producers and eliminate them, she said.

"They should be bought out and shut down," she said. "They never ever should have been brought in in the first place, but they should be bought out. The risk way exceeds the very limited private benefit, and now we're bearing the public risks and costs to try to eradicate this invasive species."

The province has long walked the line between supporting farmers and preventing the invasive offspring of former livestock from spreading. If a boar is roaming free in any part of the province, it falls under the Agricultural Pest Act and can be legally killed. The County of Stettler and the municipal districts of Peace and Bonnyville actively encourage culls with a bounty of $75 per ear. In 14 participating counties, including Strathcona and Parkland, wild boar farms are subject to minimum containment standards – like electric fencing or double fencing – and regular inspections. A growing number of counties have banned wild boar outright, usually under animal control bylaws. In most counties, however, wild boar are still just treated as regular livestock so long as they are inside a pen.

Wild boar cause extensive damage to cropland and are known vectors for African swine fever and other diseases that would cost billions if they spread through herds of livestock. That makes wild boar a liability to the pork industry itself.

"On one hand, these guys are also producers," Charlotte Shipp, industry programs manager of Alberta Pork said of wild boar farmers. On the other hand, "they do pose a significant threat back to industry."

"There's no easy answer to that. You certainly don't want to uproot anybody's livelihood. But that being said, we do also have to make sure that we're protecting the industry at large as well."

Three feral wild boar on a hill

Wild boar are considered livestock when they are enclosed, but invasive pests when they're not. (Government of Alberta)

The legislative patchwork of bylaws and voluntary controls developed as perceptions of the animal changed over time, keeping Alberta from taking an absolutist stance as it has with other pests.

"In the '50s we had already identified rats as invasive pests. Whereas in the '80s, we brought in the wild boar thinking that there was an opportunity to diversify livestock for Alberta," said Bruce Hamblin, director of the inspection and investigation section for Alberta Agriculture and Forestry. "The government encouraged them at the time without really having the foresight or the knowledge to realize that if they did get out, they would be pests."

On the agriculture side, Hamblin said he thinks the enhanced containment standards have made for fewer escape opportunities. But because there is no mandatory reporting required if a wild boar does get loose, it's impossible to say how much of an impact it has had.

The government has had some form of bounty program for wild boar control since 2008. The most recent pilot is limited to three counties and will be reviewed next summer. Initially these programs brought in hundreds of feral animals, but those numbers have been in steady decline as the wild boar become more widespread and wary of hunters.

"When the original when the bounty program first was set up, there was some initial uptake on it and a pretty fair amount of animals were removed. But in the last few years there was basically no ears turned in on the bounty program," Hamblin said. "And so far since we've introduced it this time, since April, I'm not aware of any animals that have been taken removed from the landscape yet."

Researchers have expressed concern that the bounty program could unintentionally worsen the invasive species problem by making the animals difficult to remove as they learn to evade hunters. New York State banned the hunting of wild boar, in part, for this reason. It was also meant to discourage people from treating the wild boar as recreational game, which could provide a reason to release them into the wild. The hog's status as game poses yet another complication for government and industry in Alberta.

"That's where the difficulty is with the wild boar," Hamblin said. "They do have this aura about them. People that like to hunt, like to hunt them because they're challenging, they're different. So that does cause some concern. But at this point, there's no policy to prevent that."

There are a few known game ranches in Alberta that offer wild boar trophy hunt packages, often by farmers who also produce wild boar meat for retail sale. With price tags as high as $1,500 for a guided trip and dressing of the animal, there are concerns that game ranches will incentivize lax containment and further entrench wild boar in Alberta's economy, culture, and landscape.

"We do take a position against hunting. I don't want to see any kind of commercial market developed for either wild boar meat or hunting of the animal itself. Because as soon as you create a commerce or market for it, then you're going to encourage people to get into the business," Shipp said.