05/28/2014 01:38 EDT | Updated 07/28/2014 05:59 EDT

More wild boars than people possible in Saskatchewan, expert says

Wild boar numbers continue to grow in Saskatchewan and have spread to more areas than previously believed, a University of Saskatchewan scientist says in a new study.

According to U of S biologist Ryan Brook, if the rise of the feral pig population continues unchecked, someday soon there could be more of them than people in the province. There are about 1.1 million people in Saskatchewan.

For more than a decade, rural residents have considered the boars a nuisance. They harass livestock, eat crops, tear up fields and spread disease, Brook says.

Brook's study, co-written with Floris van Beest from Aarhus University in Denmark and published in Wildlife Society Bulletin, included a survey of 296 rural municipalities.

Based on interviews with people in those RMs, it's now believed wild boars exist in 70 of them, the study says.

The furry, tusked animals were introduced to the province as exotic livestock in the 1990s, but it's believed some escaped or migrated from other areas.

They have adapted well to the province's harsh climate and have been breeding at an alarming rate since. Wild boar are believed to have some of the highest reproductive rates of all large mammals, with two litters a year of six or more piglets at a time.

"I think many people in Saskatchewan are not aware of how severe the impacts of feral boar can be," Brook said in a news release.

"In the U.S., the impacts are in the billions of dollars from disease, crop damage, livestock harassment, impacts on natural ecosystems and species at risk, and attacks on humans."

Brook said his study indicates the clock is ticking for the province to get its wild boar problem under control.

Attempts to control them have been sporadic, but what's needed is the kind of focused eradication program that's underway in the Moose Mountain area, where wild boars have become a particularly serious problem, he said.

An aggressive anti-boar program could include such things as night hunting, hunting from aircraft, using trained dogs, ground trapping and tightening up protective measures on farms, he said.

"If nothing is done then we risk having more feral boar than people in the province and at that point the costs of taking action are far greater," Brook said. "Early action will have huge economic savings."