Montana trying to prevent Canadian bacon invasion

‘Squeal on pigs’ campaign aims to alert state officials of wild pigs

By: - June 6, 2021 8:46 am

A photo of a large wild boar (Courtesy of Dr. Ryan Brook/University of Saskatchewan).

If you make a living off the land in Montana and a line of wild hogs ever comes trotting over a nearby ridge, your next gig could very well be in a Billings supermarket or auctioning horses in Missoula.

In the the twisted name of survival, those porcine Hell’s Angels of the animal kingdom will destroy mega-tracts of farm and ranch land, kill your livestock, poison the water, trample fencing, spew parasites and leave a trail of damage the Luftwaffe would envy.

“Nasty, vicious, super-adaptable and crafty creatures,” says Dr. Ryan Brook of the University of Saskatchewan, who has studied feral pigs and their sinister doings in Canada and the U.S. for decades. “It would be all over if they knew how to fly. (That’s when) I’d be building an (underground) bunker.”

These super-smart, steel-tough monsters — termed “deleterious exotic and invasive creatures” in animal-science circles — present no immediate threat to Montana’s ecology, environment or commerce, according to state officials.

But some 6 million hogs have been marauding across Texas and a slew of southern states since the 1990s, causing more than $2.5 billion in damage, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Closer to home, these rapacious, super-charged varmints have been ravaging Canada’s prairie provinces that share 545 miles of Montana border for 35 years, with no end in sight.

Considering their adaptability to almost any North American geography and climate — coupled with a gnawing need to find new territory to plunder — it’s a not-bad bet that these wide-roaming, maniacal oinkers could show up in Montana.

“All invasive species, including (and especially) wild hogs, can touch on all aspects of Montana life,” says Tahnee Syzmanski, the assistant state veterinarian in Montana’s Department of Livestock, noting feral pigs’ hellish impact on food chains, irrigation, recreation, land replenishment, you name it.

Piglets in a herd of wild boars (Courtesy of Dr. Ryan Brook/University of Saskatchewan).

Born of escaped domestic hogs and wild boars that big-league hunters have imported for sport-gunning over the years, the savage, razor-tusked critters will stop at nothing in a fevered quest for food and, it seems, malignant fun.

To say they’re prolific is to say Miss Piggy is vain. A wild sow — beginning at six months of age — can spit out 10-piglet litters twice a year. The squirts grow up fast (sometimes to 600 pounds), learn fast and move fast, usually by night.

They can roto-till an 18-hole golf course faster than a foursome can play it. Excellent swimmers, the nasty powder kegs tear up and befoul fragile wetlands and river watersheds. They’re filthy super-spreaders that carry more than 80 parasites and bacterial diseases, including bovine tuberculosis, swine brucellosis and pseudo-rabies.

The ornery swine ruin water tables and render fertile soil unusable. They’ll tear down fencing, and clean out a hen house faster than Arnold Ziffel can grunt out his “Green Acres” lines.

The hooved hellions have few, if any, predatory enemies tough or crazy enough to take them on. And it’s almost impossible to poison them in any significant numbers.

“The best way to put it is that they’re ecological time bombs whose assault on the environment is very destructive wherever they turn up,” says Travis Black of Colorado’s Parks and Wildlife, who headed that state’s long-running hog-kill effort.

Ironically, despite their uber-thick hides and gristly physiques, wild hogs are darn good eating, barbecued or otherwise. That is, if a hunter gets the drop on them.

No pig-related human deaths have ever been officially reported in the U.S. But Lord help the dim-wit not toting a respectable game rifle — say, a .220 Swift, a .240 Weatherby or, ideally, a bazooka — on confrontation.

In short, the diablo-grade brutes foster enough mayhem to leave more than a few North American farmers and ranchers broke, emotionally busted and seeking new lines of work each year.

It almost came to that on a vast scale in Colorado after gangs of Texas-sourced hogs marched into the state’s southeastern corner in the 1970s from Oklahoma and Kansas via the Cimarron River and Big Sandy Creek drainage corridors.

The hordes teamed up and began to conduct their dirty business far and wide. The low-boil crisis tied to some 700 crazed, free-wheeling hogs finally blew wide open in 2006, when the Colorado Department of Agriculture, CPW, land owners, the USDA and the U.S. Forest Service declared a boar war.

The intensive eradication campaign featured sharpshooter attacks from small, maneuverable airplanes and helicopters; heavy ground tracking by state-licensed gunners; extensive trapping; and cracking down on hunting-bent pig importers.

Not until 2019 was every feral hog in Colorado shaken, then bacon.

State officials didn’t divulge the scorched-earth effort’s not-small cost. But it was said to be peanuts compared to the “enormous savings of getting these things off the landscape,” noted a CPW spokesman.

Since then, Colorado’s Feral Pig Task Force has kept its finger on the trigger to deal immediately with any new trouble.

Oregon was forced to use Colorado’s tactics to wipe out swine gangs in several central-state counties 12 years ago. That campaign quickly reduced the burgeoning population to today’s handful, and state officials say the situation is under control.

Elsewhere, only sporadic wild hog sightings have been reported over the last few years in Wyoming, Idaho, Washington and the Dakotas, and those animals were quickly vanquished.

Canada’s another story.

In the 1980s, Russian boars and European hogs landed in the central and western provinces as seed stock for meat production and controlled hunting on privately owned ranches. From there, same story as in the U.S.: Porkers escaped, went feral and reproduced rapid-fire.

By the time anyone noticed the hogs’ fat numbers in sprawling, ag-rich Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba and the trailing damage — sub-Arctic winters and toasty summers be damned — the problem was a “house on fire that has exploded in the last 30 years,” researcher Brook says. “There’s no evidence of eradication anywhere, [and] that places Montana directly in harm’s way.”

There are no hard hog-count numbers in Canada. But concentrations are high enough to indicate that the Dominion is dealing with a problem far more nasty than, say, Texas’s, where upwards of 10,000 head run wild.

It’s a numbers game Montana and its neighboring states don’t want to play.

Montana’s division of Fish, Wildlife & Parks, as well as the Department of Agriculture, have cast a sharp eye on the Hi-Line, with its occasional hog sightings.

The Montana public awareness campaign “Squeal on Pigs.” (Courtesy State of Montana).

Montana also participates in the “Squeal on Pigs” program with several other western states. Anyone who spots what they suspect is a wild hog is urged to call the SoP hotline at 406-444-2976.

And Treasure State officials and the USDA work with Canada’s provincial wildlife and ag experts; seed cross-border conferences focusing on the pig problem; and diplomatically lean on Ottawa to do more to tamp down the threat that shows no sign of diminishment, let alone vanquishment Colorado-style.

Notes Brook, whose work is partially funded by the USDA: “Canada could be doing a better job along the border. Frankly, it has been a pretty bad neighbor letting this thing go.

“So, for Montana to stay pig-free, it has to continuously map and monitor what’s going on up here.”

And, it appears, everywhere else across North America.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the official title of Colorado Parks and Wildlife. 

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Bob Diddlebock
Bob Diddlebock

Bob Diddlebock is a longtime journalist who spent years in Colorado at the Rocky Mountain News. More recently, he's covered business and the economy for publications like Inc., and Time. He lives in Billings and is a contributor for the Daily Montanan.