Q&A with Canadian Wild Pig Expert Ryan Brook
Dr. Ryan Brook is the self-proclaimed "Canadian Chairman of the Boar." He's the foremost expert on the recent proliferation of invasive swine in Canada
Invasive hogs have long wreaked havoc on local ecosystems in the southeast U.S. But recently, another epicenter of invasive swine has emerged—and in perhaps the unlikeliest of places: Canada’s Prairie Pothole Provinces. Last month, Field & Stream reported on the issue, including the looming threat of feral hogs spreading into the northern U.S. states of Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, and Washington. To illuminate the impending threat, we spoke with Dr. Ryan Brook, the leader of the University of Saskatchewan’s Canadian Wild Pig Research Project.
Our article generated a strong response—and many readers wanted to know more about these so-called Canadian “super pigs.” So, we recently sat down with Brook for another interview to delve deeper into the issue and learn more about his research and the challenges facing Canada and the northern U.S. as they seek to respond to the invasive hogs.
You describe yourself as “The Canadian Chairman of the Boar.” That’s pretty amusing. How did that nickname come about?
Obviously, it’s a play on the phrase “chairman of the board” and the word “boar.” I’m not the chair of anything. I’m a scientist that works independently at a university. I actually have no authority. But in Canada, I’m one of very few people working on this issue, and most stories on wild pigs in the country have come from me. So, someone referred to me as that a meeting once, and I’ve been using the nickname ever since.
How did you become interested in wild pigs in the first place?
I grew up on a farm 20 miles east of Manitoba and had a really strong interest in agriculture. I also spent a lot of time camping as a kid and getting out into the wild. As I was going through college, I was really excited about working on the interface of wildlife and agriculture.
Then, when I was just starting my career, I was trying to figure out what to focus on. One issue that was just barely on the radar in 2010 was invasive wild pigs. There had been a few efforts to find some and a couple of stories about them. I talked to some people in the U.S. and someone from Texas told me about how destructive they could be. I thought it might be a career worth of research. Sure enough, the more I dug into it, the more I realized how serious the issue was.
You’ve described feral swine in Canada as “super pigs.” What do you mean by that?
There are no native pigs in Canada of any kind. Everything that’s here has been introduced by humans. In the 1980s there was a big push to diversify agriculture away from cows. They brought in all kinds of things from emus to wild European boars. The boars were raised on farms, primarily for meat production but also for high-fence shooting operations.
During that time, a lot of experts told farmers to cross their boars with domestic pigs, which are larger and reproduce more. Unfortunately, that created “super pigs,” because it supercharged their size and reproduction. Being larger helps them survive the cold winters and eventually created the ultimate invasive species. If the boars hadn’t been crossbred, they likely could still have been a problem, but this really supercharged them
So you have researched wild pigs for 13 years now. What’s the most fascinating part of the issue for you?
I despise wild pigs probably more than anyone in Canada and really wish we could get rid of them. But I also have a grudging respect for them. Of all the species I’ve worked with, wild pigs are the smartest and toughest. At some level, you have to respect that.
In our original article, you talked about the impact wild pigs have on native species, especially waterfowl in the Prairie Pothole Region. Is there any data on the impacts?
We have not had the support to do a lot of the studies we need to, like looking at impacts on waterfowl. Anecdotally, it seems like they’ve caused major failures of duck and geese reproduction in some areas by destroying nests, eating ducklings, and goslings, and tearing up wetlands. They’re predators and habitat destroyers.
What are local authorities doing to respond to the issue?
So far, the response has been very slow. There are two key rules to fighting invasive species that also apply to cancer and forest fires. You need early action and an aggressive response. We never saw that in Canada.
To be fair, there was some trapping and a few things that were done in the 90s and into the 2000s. But it’s really just been the last decade that anything has really been done—and it’s not been enough. So far, the government has really focused on using large traps to capture entire groups of pigs.
In a perfect world, what would you do now to address the issue?
As a scientist, I try to be careful not to tell people what to do. That’s not my job. My job is to inform people. But certainly, if the goal is to get in front of the issue, we need to start taking major actions. If you’re doing wild pig management and you only have one tool in your toolbox, you’re going to fail. You need lots of tools and to use all of them. That would include trapping, using “Judas Pigs,” potentially snaring, and using trained ground teams to find and eradicate entire sounders. Sport hunting is not part of the solution because it breaks up groups and causes things to get worse.
Is it inevitable that these pigs will invade the northern U.S. in significant numbers?
I really like the saying: the future is not predicted, it’s invented. I don’t think anything is inevitable. There are real opportunities to get in front of this. While we know wild pigs will not be eradicated from the southern U.S., and now, in some spots in Canada, I do believe having a “no pig zone” on both sides of the U.S.-Canada Border is possible and should be a priority for both countries. That could be successful. But we’d also need to better address some of the wild pig populations strongholds in Canada.
How eminent is the threat for the northern U.S.?
We don’t have data to prove they have crossed the border yet, but we have documented a wild pig one mile from the boundary. We don’t have big populations right on the boundary, but the stronghold in southwest Manitoba is only about 42 miles from the border of North Dakota. That is really concerning. I suspect there have already been several occurrences of Canadian pigs crossing into the U.S. Whether they’ve stayed there or not, we don’t know.
What can the states in the northern U.S. do to prevent the spread of wild pigs?
Montana is a good example. They have strict laws on owning and transporting swine in the state. You can’t sport hunt them there, either, because that creates an incentive to have them there. Those policies are huge positives.
Education is also absolutely crucial. We need to let people know about the risks and impacts of invasive pigs. They’re much broader than what most people know.
We also need to work with and put pressure on Canada to step up and really take this issue on. In general, the U.S. has taken a very aggressive, well-funded approach to feral pigs across the continental U.S. There needs to be collaborative monitoring between the two countries going forward.
Many of our readers are hunters. What can they do to help address the issue?
Everyone who operates trail cameras and is out on the land and sees a wild pig should report it to Squeal on Pigs. It’s a program in both Canada and the U.S. Reporting these occurrences is fundamental to mapping where wild hogs are and spurring rapid detection and responses. Hunters and fishers are really our eyes on the land.
Have you directly encountered wild pigs in Canada?
We capture them from helicopters and put collars on them. I’ve certainly seen them on the land up close and personal.
What’s an interesting story from your research?
This is one of the stories that highlighted how elusive wild pigs are. We had a large male pig in Saskatchewan with a GPS collar. We had made an agreement with the landowner to collar the animals and remove them after 2 years. So, after two years, we found the pig using the collar using the GPS location. We couldn’t see the pig, but the signal was strong, showing it was right there. A helicopter came in with an infrared camera and they still couldn’t see it. We had several people on the ground that also couldn’t find it, even though it was a fairly open field.
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Eventually, one guy got off his snowmobile to tie his boots and saw the 400-pound wild pig had bulldogged under a chunk of ice the size of a pool table. We would have definitely given up if it wasn’t for the GPS collar. That was a real reminder of just so challenging these things are to find and remove. It’s incredibly difficult.
This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.