Wild pigs migrate north, possibly into Montana

Pigs aren’t usually animals people think they have to worry about. But wild pigs could change that if they make it into Montana.

This animal, also known as wild hog, wild boar or feral pig, has been stirring up a ruckus in almost every U.S. state and Canadian province. Wildlife biologists fear that Montana, one of only five states without feral pigs, could be the next state these swine sweep into.

Alhough feral pigs are considered a game animal in some states, they are considered a pest in others.

After working as the chief of wildlife management for Manitoba, Brian Knudsen made feral pigs his main concern. Knudsen was working with a group of researchers from Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Kansas who gathered feral pig population statistics, and he became so interested with the problem that he made it part of his life’s work.

Knudsen now runs Knudsen Wildlife Management Systems in Manitoba, where he offers consulting for wildlife management problems. While this pays the bills, Knudsen focuses his personal research on the spread of feral pigs with the Northern Feral Pig Project.

Pigs came with the Spanish when they took control of the southeast United States in the 1500s. Some pigs were fenced in while others were released as game animals. Then about 20 to 30 years ago, Knudsen said, people began to notice the wild pig population was expanding.

In the mid-1990s, Knudsen mapped the spread of feral pigs. His study found that pigs had reached Kansas and Missouri, a significant shift north. Knudsen said the pigs spread because hunters trapped and loaded groups into livestock trucks, then drove them to other states and released them.

A recent survey conducted by Knudsen showed that the pigs had spread into Manitoba, , British , Michigan and Wisconsin.

North Dakota veterinary officials had to eradicate a herd of pigs in 2008. The officials used traps and had to shoot pigs from helicopters in what Knudsen said was an “almost military-like” extermination. He said the important message was that those were the measures they had to take to get rid of the animals.

Knudsen commended North Dakota for being organized and realizing how serious the problem was so they could take control of it so quickly.

“This is what needs to be done,” Knudsen said. “It’s a model that states like Montana can follow with profit.”

It is unknown when or how the pigs will enter Montana. Knudsen said it could be next year or 20 years from now. But the most important thing, he said, is having a plan for when the time comes. He compared it to having a fire department: “It’s there in case you need it.”

“You can hold them off,” Knudsen said. “Southern states will never get rid of them. Montana and North Dakota, if they are ready, they can hold them off.”

Several varieties of pigs are actually the same species. Eurasian boars and domestic pigs look different but interbreed successfully, Knudsen said.

One of the reasons they are such successful pests is that sows can have one to two litters a year with about nine to 15 piglets per litter.  Knudsen said that sows are good mothers and keep the pig survival rate high.

Pigs are also very intelligent, he said. If pigs survive a trap encounter, they will not return to another trap like it.

An evenly distributed layer of body fat helps keep them alive in the United States colder northern regions where people didn’t think the animals could survive because they lack a heavy fur coat.

Feral pigs root around, digging up food in the soil. If they do this around streams, their feces can get into the watershed. Weeds can thrive in the upturned dirt. They also destroy the nests of ground-nesting birds, which could threaten native bird species.

“There is no co-existing,” Knudsen said.

It was Knudsen who sounded the alarm to Missoula bear specialist and biologist Chuck Jonkel. Jonkel said many people in Missoula hadn’t heard of the feral pig problem.

“People keep asking me why I am calling bears ‘pigs,’” Jonkel said.

Jonkel and Knudsen are old friends, and in a meeting several years ago, Knudsen shared his concern for Montana’s wildlife safety. Jonkel said he took it upon himself to raise the alarm that feral pigs are a looming threat to Montana’s habitat, and as far as he knows, the state hasn’t done anything about it.

“The state ought to be proactive and have a wild pig project ready so they are ready to roll,” Jonkel said.

Known for his work with grizzly bears, Jonkel said the pigs would affect other state-protected wildlife, including bears. He said pigs would compete directly with bears for food, and because the pigs reproduce fast and bears reproduce relatively slow, the pigs could easily outnumber the bears within a short amount of time.

Jonkel said trophy hunters want bigger boars, so hunters will run the show if they have a population of pigs to lobby for. He said he thinks that Montana should categorize the pigs as a pest before the hunting community can get behind them. He said states that make the pigs a game animal end up with thousands of pigs, and by that point, it’s too late to get rid of them.

“Once they get established, they are formidable,” Jonkel said.

Jonkel said a study he read listed only six states without feral pigs, including Wyoming and Montana, but he has heard there are populations in Wyoming, which would make it just five states.

Jonkel said a few years ago, a group of domestic pigs escaped and got out of control in the Grant Creek area. A friend of Jonkel’s who worked with the state then had to go into the area and shoot all the pigs before they established themselves further.

“He just blew them all away, and that’s what the state has to be ready to do,” Jonkel said. “Kill them right away with state employees.”

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