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Report details how to combat invasion of feral pigs

by KIANNA GARDNER
Daily Inter Lake | January 6, 2021 12:00 AM

Invasive species councils in Montana and Washington are working in tandem to prevent hoards of feral pigs from crossing the Canadian border into the western United States — an invasion experts say would greatly impact farms, ranches, wildlife habitats and natural resources.

Recognizing the threats the species poses, the Montana Invasive Species Council and Washington Invasive Species Council formed a large working group in early 2020 that consisted more than 40 federal, state and Canadian feral swine experts.

Over the course of a year, the two councils spearheaded discussions regarding the challenges and opportunities to prevent the animals from crossing into interstate and international borders. Those discussions led to the creation of a transboundary report, which was finalized in December 2020 and includes recommendations that address five strategic areas of feral swine management: coordination, monitoring, reporting and notification, response, and control and management.

“Wild pig populations are expanding in the western provinces of Canada and in the United States,” said Stephanie Criswell, coordinator of the Montana Invasive Species Council.

“We are at a unique point in time where we can work together to prevent Canadian wild pigs from spreading across borders into unaffected states like Montana.”

THEd NON-NATIVE and invasive species has emerged as a “major environmental and economic concern as populations have exploded,” according to the report.

One study from the University of Saskatchewan states the wild animals have, on average, increased in their area by 5,400 square miles per year over the past decade. In total, experts estimate more than six million feral hogs exist in North America, and while researchers and other stakeholders have yet to confirm any swine populations in Montana, the report states they are “expanding in western provinces of Canada and are on the rise in the United States.”

Species distribution data in the U.S. and Canada also has confirmed the swine have been detected near the international border and that “transboundary movement is highly possible.” Potential sightings have already been reported in several Montana counties that border Canada, including a recent incident in which someone discovered and reported “unusual turf damage” in the Bigfork area.

“Feral swine don’t respect international borders or jurisdictions,” said Justin Bush, coordinator of the Washington Invasive Species Council. “This process [creating the new report] brought everyone in the neighborhood together to address this important issue.”

The final report offers 22 recommendations, including standardizing communications to the public, expanding monitoring networks by partnering with non-traditional organizations such as hunting groups and formalizing notification protocols for reports that will be shared between state and provincial authorities along the international border.

The document also details how parties should respond when hogs are sighted. Among other recommendations, authorities should respond to confirmed sightings within 48 hours “with a goal of eliminating the entire sounder.”

WHILE THE new document is viewed as a major collaborative step forward in combating the pigs, it’s only the latest in a long string of efforts to maintain and bring awareness to the hogs and their threats.

The animals can weigh up to 330 to 440 pounds when mature and can carry more than 30 diseases and parasites that can spread to livestock and humans, including sine brucellosis and pseudorabies. Known as “rototillers,” they can also destroy lands with their rooting and wallowing and can mow down an entire field of crops in one night if left unchecked. Officials with the United States Department of Agriculture National Feral Swine Program have estimated that a widespread feral pig infestation could cost the United States $2.5 billion per year in crop, livestock and natural resource damages.

In 2019, National Feral Swine Program Manager Dale Nolte told the Daily Inter Lake, “multiple people say that if we were to design an invasive species that would do the most widespread damage, feral swine aren’t too far off from being the perfect specimen. It would be a disaster.”

In the U.S., populations currently exist in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and elsewhere. But for Montana, it’s the rapidly growing groups of hogs Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba that have posed the biggest threat as they continue their slow and uncontrolled amble to the border. In recent years, landowners and others in Lincoln, Flathead, Phillips and Sheridan counties have reported possible hog sightings or property damage that might indicate feral hogs in the area.

A major scare came in early 2018, when a landowner reported seeing a hog near Phillips County, which prompted wildlife officials to launch a half-a-day flight mission over the area in search of the animals, which can be elusive despite their size. The efforts were fruitless, which led the search party to believe the report was only a false alarm.

However, in October 2018, a group of hogs was officially spotted wandering near Sheridan County in Big Muddy, Saskatchewan — an event that prompted various Montana agencies to push for widespread education of feral swine laws.

IN 2015, the Montana Legislature passed a bill banning feral swine and designating the Department of Livestock as the primary agency responsible for responding to reports of feral swine. Prohibitions include importing, transporting, or possessing live feral swine, or hunting, trapping or killing them.

While hunting and/or killing the hogs seems like a viable option, a 2020 report from Assistant State Veterinarian Tahnee Szymanski, noted “due to reproductive efficiency and movement behavior, feral swine cannot be eradicated by simple hunting practices.” The study continues, stating “hunting pressure that fails to eliminate all animals in a group (leaving a ‘sounder’) can result in further dispersion,” as has been studied in Canada.

The 2018 efforts evolved into the Squeal on Pigs campaign, which launched in 2019 and created a single point of contact to simplify reporting and to ensure sightings reach the agency responsible for responding.

Department of Livestock officials told the Montana Invasive Species Council during a December 2020 meeting that the Saskatchewan government, the Alberta Invasive Species Council, the Manitoba and British Columbia governments and the Canada Wild Pig Initiative have already, or are in the process of, adopting the Squeal on Pigs campaign. Idaho, Washington, and Montana have already done so.

For more information on the feral hogs and the Squeal on Pigs campaign, go to invasivespecies.mt.gov/montana-invasive-species/squeal-on-pigs

Reporter Kianna Gardner can be reached at 758-4407 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com