Pork industry wakes up to counting wild boar

By Andrew Heck

Wild boar surveillance and eradication go hand-in-hand. Researchers and partners convened at the Alberta Invasive Species Council’s (AISC) Conference in March 2024 to share their work.

Unlike counting sheep, counting wild boar won’t lull anyone to sleep. It’s a tedious job, and locating these elusive creatures is often best done at night, when they’re most active.

Eurasian wild boar were introduced into Canada in the 1980s as a livestock diversification strategy; however, obvious drawbacks quickly outweighed intended benefits. As these resilient animals escaped or were deliberately released from farms and controlled hunting sites, they quickly became established as an invasive, highly destructive population in local ecosystems. Their ongoing presence jeopardizes crops, livestock and the environment, drawing keen interest from diverse stakeholders.

For hog producers, the primary concern is that wild boar could potentially transmit diseases like African Swine Fever (ASF) and Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD), which, if discovered in Canada, would likely close most foreign markets to trade in Canadian pork, worth more than $5 billion every year. FMD would impact not only pigs but other ruminants, like cattle, affecting beef trade. Valued partners are counting on the Canadian pork industry to fend off these diseases, and as a result, support for wild boar control continues to grow, as public awareness increases.

In early 2023, Alberta Pork approached Results Driven Agriculture Research (RDAR) – the Government of Alberta’s non-profit agricultural research funding organization – to support a wild boar monitoring project with the University of Calgary. With assistance from Alberta Pork and Alberta Agriculture and Irrigation, researchers and producers across the province have been working together to find out where wild boar are concentrated, how they’re interacting with wild and domestic animals, and what kinds of diseases they might be spreading.

While the project is still ongoing, researchers and their partners are eager to share more about the work, why it matters, and what producers, the agriculture industry and the public can do to help.

Wild boar home range likely larger in Alberta

Researchers have installed dozens of wildlife cameras across Alberta in the hopes of better understanding the province’s wild boar population.

Getting an accurate tally of wild boar on Alberta’s vast landscape is no easy task, but through the use of strategically placed wildlife cameras, researchers are able to get a 24/7 view of crop fields, pastures and bush across many of the province’s rural municipalities.

Mathieu Pruvot is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Calgary. Working with graduate students Devin Fitzpatrick, Oshin Ley and Luis Salazar, the group has undertaken various components of research, covering the ecology of wild boar to surveillance and testing for pathogens, which requires collecting and analyzing large volumes of information.

“We’re going to learn a lot from the data we gather, in terms of where to look and what to look for,” said Pruvot. “There has been a lot of discussion and coordination between the partners on this work, and we’re trying to figure out how to sustain this long-term to support the bigger goals, like potential eradication.”

Eradication efforts in the province, directed by Alberta Pork and Alberta Agriculture and Irrigation, have been underway for several years, but to optimize those efforts, emphasis on specific areas is expected to help.

“The more you understand about movements, the more targeted you can be with trap placements,” said Fitzpatrick. “What we’re doing is trying to get information to help make decisions down the line.”

Last year, Fitzpatrick used wild boar sighting data to identify areas containing suspected populations, then placed wildlife cameras in those general locations by randomly selecting spots using GIS software. In total, she has 84 cameras spread across 14 clusters, with six cameras each. They’re divided between Woodlands County, Lac Ste. Anne County and Yellowhead County, west of Edmonton, and the County of Two Hills, County of St. Paul and Vermilion River County, east of Edmonton. The cameras are located on a mix of private and public land, in different kinds of habitats.

Now that the cameras have been in place for roughly one year, memory cards are in the process of being collected for analysis, while continuing to monitor for another year with fresh cards. As no wild boar density estimates for Alberta currently exist, the researchers are aiming to establish an approximation, followed by ‘home range’ measurements for the groups, called ‘sounders.’

Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) suggests feral swine in the southern U.S. have a home range of less than eight square kilometres, but the researchers are working to establish parameters for Alberta’s wild boar population. Further work with GPS-collared wild boar males and females can also shed light on information such as contact within and between sounders, which informs potential disease transmission rates.

When wild boar sounders are captured through eradication efforts, carcasses are sent to a provincial government necropsy lab, then made available as part of this research.

Rooting out the source of disease

Aside from trying to gauge the spread and density of wild boar populations, understanding which diseases they carry has generated valuable insight into the risks they pose to livestock.

Tests performed on samples gathered from wild boar carcasses suggest the same strains of Porcine Circovirus 2 & 3 (PCV2 & PCV3) commonly found in domestic pig production are being discovered in wild boar.

“It’s one of the important diseases that’s challenging the pork sector and economy,” said Ley.

In addition to PCV2 & PCV3, Ley’s work involves performing serological tests to determine the strains of Influenza A, Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS), Mycoplasma and Erisypelas found in samples.

Following serological testing, polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing of wild boar tissues and sequencing is helping to characterize pathogens, to determine whether transmission is occurring frequently between wild boar and domestic pigs or whether the pathogens are largely spreading within wild boar, in isolation. Wild boar scat, on the other hand, is being analyzed for genetic markers of antimicrobial resistance and whether those genes are being exchanged between wild boar and domestic pigs.

Lab results have also shown the presence of viruses that are suspected to have been contracted from other wildlife species. As opportunistic omnivores, it’s speculated that consumption of infected carcasses may be the culprit.

“This isn’t very surprising itself,” said Pruvot. “There’s been a lot of transmission of viruses between wild and domestic animals in the past couple of years in Canada. But this is significant, as it suggests that wild boar are picking up pathogens that commonly spread in other hosts, including livestock. This should not be ignored.”

When it comes to concerns over the potential to spread ASF specifically, the team is developing a model to understand how the virus might spread if it were to enter the wild boar population. That information could prove vital in the event it’s needed.

Producer support integral to efforts

Participants are spread out across Alberta’s rural municipalities, with a focus on areas in the north-central and western parts of the province, where wild boar are commonly found.

For producers like Jurgen Preugschas, being involved with wild boar surveillance was a no-brainer.

“It’s always been worrisome to me, especially when I was a purebred breeder, since health is so important,” said Preugschas. “We’ve been fortunate to experience only limited damage over the years, but we continue to see them.”

Preugschas currently operates a medium-sized wean-to-finish operation near Mayerthorpe, in an area where wild boar have long been sighted and are being targeted for eradication.

“Being that nothing was done to control the situation starting in the 1980s, it’s developed into a pretty widespread problem in our area,” said Preugschas. “Eliminating wild boar from certain areas is going to be really hard. It’s going to require government commitment and support from industry.”

While the problem is clear to commercial producers like Preugschas, he’s concerned that alarm bells may not be ringing for some producers.

“The challenge for small-scale producers is to understand that they are part of a connected industry. It may not be a big-ticket item to them, but it can have a massive impact overall,” said Preugschas. “Not only diseases like ASF and FMD, but trichinosis could also be a concerned for producers with outdoor pigs.”

James Tschetter runs a 24,000-head finishing operation near Wanham. He recently completed disinfecting his barn, as a biosecurity measure – a practice used by producers to uphold animal welfare and food safety standards. He has also joined the research project, along with two of his neighbours.

“We’ve got a lot of wildlife up here, so I think it’s important we know where wild boar are,” said Tschetter. “It’s a big biosecurity issue for us. From my understanding, wild boar are in the county to our south.”

Tschetter’s eagerness for the project is reflected by Alberta Pork’s dedication to addressing the problem.

“They’re putting their money where their mouth is,” said Tschetter. “It’s good to know they’re on top of this, making a great team effort.”

Small-scale producer engagement needed

Oshin Ley, Devin Fitzpatrick and Luis Salazar presented on wild boar surveillance during Results Driven Agriculture Research’s (RDAR) research showcase in January 2024. Salazar has also been attending pork industry events like the Red Deer Swine Technology Workshop and Banff Pork Seminar to talk about the project.

As the work continues, the team is eager to spread the word about the project and recruit new producers to participate.

“A lot of this project hinges on collaboration with producers,” said Pruvot. “This includes generating observations and reports of wild boar, and most specifically documenting occurrences on farms through the survey we’re conducting.”

Pruvot reiterated that camera tracking and reported sightings by members of the public are not mutually exclusive; sightings help identify areas to target, which makes the best use of the resources at their disposal and provides greater focus.

The project so far has seen positive support from many of the commercial producers approached; however, opportunity and motivation exist to involve more small-scale producers, especially outdoor productions. Though many of these individuals may consider themselves to be outside of the industry, the need for their participation cannot be under-stated.

“They may not have seen wild boar personally, so they think it has nothing to do with them,” said Salazar. “But some of their farms are in the core areas, where most of the sightings are coming from. We want to hear from them, as they’re really our eyes in rural areas.”

For producers who have experienced repeated encounters with wild boar, a more detailed sub-study is taking place to understand interactions with livestock on those farms. Creating this understanding for Alberta matters, as the province’s wild boar population is distinct from those in the southern U.S., along with Europe, where Eurasian wild boar are native.

While a full summary of results is not yet available, Pruvot is confident that the project is moving in the right direction. Rather than approaching the efforts as a one-off to satisfy the ends of the project, Pruvot recognizes the need for continued and increased stakeholder engagement, to achieve mutual goals.

“It’s starting to tell us the story of what’s happening,” said Pruvot. “I think we’re going to learn quite a bit from this, and we are doing our best to generate information that is directly relevant to the pork industry and our partners in the provincial and federal governments.”

In addition to camera installations, the team is actively running a survey for all hog producers in Alberta – no matter the production size or type, and regardless of whether they have personally seen wild boar on their properties – which comes with the chance to win a gift card, as a little incentive. Producers interested in taking part can access the survey using the QR code found in this article.

Keeping the momentum going

Alberta producers who are interested in sharing their experiences with wild boar are asked to complete a short survey, which can be accessed through the QR code shown above.

Across North America, concern for the wild boar problem, and the recommended management strategies, differ; however, when it comes to Alberta’s efforts, partnerships between producers, researchers, government and industry have been integral to gaining a handle on the issue.

“We’ve been satisfied with the research so far, and we hope everyone will see the value in it,” said Javier Bahamon, Quality Assurance and Production Manager, Alberta Pork. “We encourage all producers who are interested to help out the researchers.”

Alberta Pork and its partners remain committed to the cause, supporting healthy livestock and ecosystems, and creating assurances among global partners that the pork industry is doing everything it can to protect pigs that are transformed into the high-quality pork on their customers’ plates.