Looming among our neighbors to the north is an invasive species Montana experts say would cause extensive environmental degradation to the Big Sky state, should they ever successfully saunter across the border.
And they’re edging closer every year.
Large populations of feral hogs throughout Saskatchewan and Alberta have been slowly encroaching on the Montana-Canada border, placing wildlife experts, farmers and other stakeholders on edge.
Multiple reports have emerged of groups of feral hogs being spotted “very close” to the border. One of the most recent sightings occurred earlier this summer when eight mature pigs were discovered in Canada directly above Lincoln County. That’s according to John Steuber, the state director and a supervisory wildlife biologist for Wildlife Services, a program with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
And officials with Wildlife Services, Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, the National Feral Swine Program, the Montana Invasive Species Council and others share the same concerns about the pigs: it would be an invasive species the likes of which the state has never seen.
“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,” said Dale Nolte, program manager for the National Feral Swine Program, which is operated by the United States Department of Agriculture. “It would be a disaster.”
Feral pigs are widely known as “rototillers.” They root around for their food and spend much of their time wallowing in landscapes from farms and open fields to forests and riparian areas, leaving the terrains unrecognizable. Aside from the damages left behind, they are elusive in nature and often become nocturnal when “hunted or pressured by human activity,” said Ryan Brook, a researcher and assistant professor at the University of Saskatchewan.
The pigs are also highly prolific.
Steuber said females birth around three litters every two years or so, and litters have been known to contain more than a dozen piglets. When grown, mature adults weigh on average between 120 and 250 pounds, but larger ones have tipped the scales at 400 pounds.
“They can decimate the range land by tearing up everything,” said Tahnee Szymanski, an assistant veterinarian with the Montana Department of Livestock.
While extensive damage to lands is a major potential problem, Szymanski said the diseases the pigs have been known to carry are of equal concern. She points to two primary diseases that could have sizable impacts on domestic livestock and other animals in the wilderness: African swine fever and foot-and-mouth disease.
“On the international scale, there have been very significant outbreaks of African swine fever. Currently it is believed the disease doesn’t exist in Canada and we certainly hope to keep it that way,” Szymanski said. “Our swine industry in Montana relies heavily on making sure diseases like this don’t come here.”
African swine fever is most prevalent in parts of Africa, Europe and China. And while the disease takes a toll on domestic pig herds and spreads at rapid rates, foot-and-mouth disease can be transmitted to cattle, sheep and other livestock.
It is difficult to estimate what an invasion of the pigs would cost the United States in crop damage, disease spread to pets and livestock and land and wildlife destruction, but Nolte said some estimate the invasive species could come with a $2.5 billion per year cost of damage if they become more widespread. Although feral swine have been spotted from coast to coast in various states, current populations in the U.S. are mostly restricted to southern states such as Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and others.
THE PIGS in Canada that are most concerning to Montana officials are currently confined to Regions 4 and 6 of Fish Wildlife and Parks, which are located east of Region 1 — an area that is bound by the Flathead Indian Reservation to the south and Glacier National Park to the north.
However, according to Neil Anderson, wildlife manager for Fish Wildlife and Parks Region 1, the Flathead and other portions of Northwest Montana are not necessarily immune to the feral hogs.
“We don’t have any nearby populations that we know of, but there are some we are monitoring that are moving toward the Northwest area,” Anderson said. “These things can span a range pretty quickly.”
Brook, whose research on the pigs is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, described them as “highly mobile,” often traveling 30 miles in the course of a few days. According to his studies, which have included monitoring GPS collared hogs, mapping distribution and installing networks of trail cameras, the pigs are expanding exponentially at a rate of 20 million acres per year. The rapid spread means all corridors of Montana — even the Northwest portion — are at risk and should exercise caution.
Brook and his team have been monitoring the pigs since they were first established in Canada in the 1980s and he said an aggressive and immediate action plan is needed to mitigate the rapid spread of the swine. But that has yet to manifest itself, and Brook added it’s currently not likely the U.S. would see help in forming one from Canadian counterparts, particularly in Saskatchewan where the majority of the pigs are thriving.
“Saskatchewan is a very high functioning pig factory and the populations are exploding with very minimal efforts to control them,” Brook said. “Lack of serious action in Saskatchewan is the single greatest threat to Montana.”
Saskatchewan is roughly the size of Texas but has no monitoring system or data collection process in place for the swine. Brook said the problem is rooted in an anti-science stance typically taken by Saskatchewan government officials.
“There is a general denial that wild pigs are a critical issue,” Brook said.
Alberta, however, is one of Canada’s most proactive provinces when it comes to the issues of the wild pigs. According to Brook, Alberta is the only province to have a management plan for wild pigs and is collecting data on the distribution and health status of the animals.
DESPITE A lack of action from the north, Montana has made impressive strides toward monitoring and controlling the feral pigs.
“From what I have seen, Montana is doing a lot of things exactly right to be monitoring for wild pigs and local people are being asked to share any sightings so the likelihood of detection is high,” Brook said.
Close calls in the past two years have prompted stakeholders across the state to think more critically about preventative efforts and how they can more accurately monitor any fast-approaching herds.
One prominent sighting occurred in January 2018 when a landowner reported seeing feral hogs near Phillips County — a possible invasion that launched a flight mission over the area that lasted more than half-a-day. The search on the Montana side of the border came up empty-handed, prompting a temporary sigh of relief from wildlife officials. But in October 2018, a group of feral hogs was seen wandering in Big Muddy, Saskatchewan, near Sheridan County.
According to Stephanie Hester, the council coordinator of the Montana Invasive Species Council, the two events led the council to become “much more involved with the issue.”
They recently launched a Squeal on Pigs campaign to raise awareness of the creatures.
“The campaign was adopted from Washington and Oregon where eradication efforts have been successful,” Hester said. She added the primary push right now is just to educate Montana residents on what the pigs would mean for the state as “private landowners, especially up by the border, will be our eyes and ears.”
Steuber also said Wildlife Services, in partnership with others, is in the process of putting together a feral swine management plan for the state. They are gathering input from neighboring states that have had success with removals.
Nolte said one of the greatest concerns is the threat of people physically moving the animals across borders intentionally. This is a process that is similar to “bucket biology,” when individuals dump nonnative fish into a lake simply because they want them there. However, rules pertaining to feral swine in Montana have been on the books since the 15th legislature session when Senate Bill 100 passed. Under the legislation, a $2,000 minimum fine can be imposed on those caught transporting, hunting or generally possessing the swine, with a few exceptions.
“Importantly there also is a strong commitment to deal with any animals if and when they might occur in Montana so I think that [Montana] state and federal authorities are very much on the right track to prevent wild pigs from arriving from Canada and becoming established,” Brook said. “My primary concern is that these efforts may, in coming years, be overwhelmed by the rapidly expanding populations in Canada.”