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Ryan Brook: Canada’s ‘Chairman of the Boar’

The Saskatchewan-based researcher has been studying and tracking super pigs for over 14 years.
BY CAILYNN KLINGBEIL
FEB 21 2024

Ryan Brook: Canada’s ‘Chairman of the Boar’

The Saskatchewan-based researcher has been studying and tracking super pigs for over 14 years.

BY CAILYNN KLINGBEIL | FEB 21 2024

Imagine a group of experts set out to design the perfect invasive species for the Canadian Prairies. And by this definition, perfect means detrimental; able to become established and grow, while also causing severe and irreversible damage on native ecosystems. Those experts would be hard-pressed to come up with a more destructive animal than what already exists, says Ryan Brook: wild pigs.

Dr. Brook has been studying wild pigs – and warning anyone he can about them – since 2010. A professor at the University of Saskatchewan in the department of animal and poultry science, his research includes developing the first baseline map of wild pig location in Canada. That’s no small feat, considering the challenge of tracking an elusive animal across several million square kilometres.

Through resident reports, photos from trail cameras, data from tracking collars and on-the-ground conversations, Dr. Brook and his former PhD student Ruth Aschim have detailed the rapid spread of wild pigs, particularly in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. “We are on track to have more wild pigs than people in Saskatchewan,” is an oft-quoted line from Dr. Brook.

That’s problematic, considering how disastrous the aggressive animals are to native ecosystems and crops. They eat almost anything, their rooting and digging causes environmental damage and they can spread diseases to wildlife, livestock and humans, including the particularly worrisome African swine fever.

Dr. Brook believes that Canada is inadequately prepared for this looming crisis. He’s relentlessly tried to change that over the past 14 years, urging policymakers to act. He also shares his research through an engaged Canadian Wild Pig Research Project Facebook page and gives hundreds of media interviews – 201 interviews in 2023 alone. Canadian super pigs even garnered a joke on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert last year.

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Dr. Brook didn’t set out to become one of Canada’s foremost researchers on wild pigs – or “Chairman of the Boar”, a nickname he’s embraced. In fact, a few years into his research, he was ready to give up and find a different species to study.

“It’s by far the hardest research I’ve ever done,” he says. He points to the smart and tough animals being difficult to track and count, the ongoing failures to address their spread, the waves of opposition to his work from critics who say he’s blowing the issue out of proportion, as well as fear mongering. Wild pigs remain out of sight, out of mind to the average Canadian, Dr. Brook says, leading to inaction.

These days, however, Dr. Brook no longer considers giving up. He’s determined to keep spreading the word about wild pigs, letting people know what a big deal they are and why taking action is essential. “It has been incredibly challenging, but it’s so important that I just can’t stop,” he says.

A real and practical impact

“Wild pigs” is a generic term that captures different types of pigs. In Canada, it includes escaped or released domestic pigs and domestic wild boars, an animal brought to Canada from Europe in the 1980’s and 1990’s to diversify agriculture. Wild boars were also cross-bred with domestic pigs and later released or escaped, leading to what Dr. Brook deems “super pigs”: a larger animal that can reproduce more frequently and thrives in the wild.

“Through their reproductive rate and capitalizing on agricultural crops and feeding on all manner of native wildlife, they’ve absolutely exploded and been incredibly successful,” he says.

Dr. Brook’s interest in these animals goes back many years. He was raised on a farm in Manitoba and describes himself as a practical farm boy who wants to solve problems and help people.

“I often think of myself as more of a support role rather than driving the science.”

He put himself through his undergraduate studies at the University of Manitoba by working with his dad on the farm, raising and selling pigs. His passion for wildlife spurred him to study in the Arctic during his Master’s degree, a place he travels to annually for research.

Dr. Brook returned to the Prairies for his PhD and focused on the problem of elk spreading bovine tuberculosis to cattle in southwestern Manitoba. A running joke was that his PhD stood for “post hole digger”, because he spent so much time putting up fences around haystacks to keep elk out. But it was rewarding work, offering farmers a practical solution to a real problem.

Dr. Brook has gone on to work with Indigenous and rural communities on various research projects that incorporate local knowledge, traditional knowledge and community-based monitoring. In all of his work, he says he aims to build strong relationships and help others out – a philosophy he attributes to his farm upbringing. “I often think of myself as more of a support role rather than driving the science,” he says. “I say ‘how can I help?’, and that is ultimately what drives what I do and how I do it.”

In 2010, Dr. Brook started his first “real job” and remembers sitting down with his department head at the USask and asking “what do you want me to work on?” Whatever you want, he was told. “I walked out of there thinking, ‘this is the opportunity of a lifetime.’”

He sought a topic where he could have a real and practical impact, and one that few others were studying. He knew wild pigs were an emerging issue in the United States, and he used his startup grant from the university to buy trail cameras and go looking for the creatures in Canada.

Putting pigs on the map

This was 2010, when most people were dubious the animals existed here, or, if they did, that they could survive a prairie winter. An early set of Dr. Brook’s trail camera photos proved otherwise. A big sow walked by the camera in the winter, followed by two sets of piglets. This pig was not only surviving; she was thriving, giving birth to multiple litters in the same year. “We said ‘OK, this is serious, they’re out there,’” he remembers. “We started putting more and more energy into it.”

The response, however, was crickets. In 2014, Dr. Brook was ready to give up on studying wild pigs. “Nobody cared, nobody wanted to listen, and most importantly, nobody wanted to fund it,” he says. After a number of his trail cameras were stolen, Dr. Brook began looking at other species to study – “something that people are actually interested in.”

Fortuitously, around that time the U.S. department of agriculture expressed interest in Dr. Brook’s work, and funding from the department helped revive his research. He’s stuck with the topic since, though he’s been purposeful about seeking out other experiences, also running research projects in the remote Wapusk National Park, along the coast of Hudson Bay, monitoring wolves and caribou.

He also travels north for a month every August, teaching a field course for university students and working with high school students through the International Student-Led Arctic Monitoring and Research Program (ISAMR).

Dr. Brook and Julie Rogers, a high school teacher at Park School in Baltimore, Maryland, started ISAMR in 2007. The program engages youth from Winnipeg, Churchill and Baltimore in student-led field research to monitor climate change.

Ms. Rogers describes Dr. Brook as a master teacher who expertly shares his knowledge with people of all ages, while also always making efforts to listen and learn from the people he’s working with. “He has such a good sense of humour, and is just a kind, thoughtful guy,” she says. “He also has a deep respect for culture as it pertains to science, which is not always the case.”

Dr. Brook says his annual research trips to the Arctic sustain him. “I cling to that as my other research that’s keeping up my mental health and physical health, and it’s kind of a break from the insane politics of wild pigs.”

Still, he says he’s not dropping the pig problem. He says Canada has missed its window of opportunity for eradication, but coordinated approaches and major actions can still make a difference. “The academic freedom I have is an incredible privilege … and it puts a huge responsibility on me to try as best as I can to get the truth out.”

PUBLISHED BY
Cailynn Klingbeil
Cailynn Klingbeil is a writer, editor and freelance journalist based in Calgary.
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  1. Jim Kells / February 22, 2024 at 17:05

    Interesting article about a fascinating problem. And I do believe Dr. Brook when he says that wild pigs are a problem vis. a vis. their capacity for all manner of destruction. I’ve even read where the pigs are getting into Edmonton, and the results of that won’t be pretty. Unfortunately, when I was a department head in engineering at the University of Saskatchewan, I was not able to provide Dr. Brook with his request for research funds, even though what he was focussed on then, moose crossing Highway 11 between Regina and Saskatoon, was a matter of concern. Best wishes for your ongoing research, Dr. Brook!

    • Aliana Martin / February 26, 2024 at 07:31

      Interesting article about a fascinating problem. And I do believe Dr. Brook when he says that wild pigs are a problem vis. a vis. their capacity for all manner of destruction.

  2. DR Peter Vickers / March 22, 2024 at 14:25

    We have a similar but smaller problem here in New Zealand. Pigs were introduced in the late 18th century by Captain Cook, the explorer, hoping they would breed to provide food for crews who visited and for the indeicenous Maori. Until that time there were no large mammals in NZ, just a bat and an introduced rat, plus domestic dogs. by the 1830’S Maori were trading pigs , known as Captain Cookers or in Maori Poakas ( Porkers) with Whalers and sealers, they spread to many areas of NZ. Fortunately pig-hunting was, and still is a pastime for many usually carried out with a small pack of dogs to find and hold the pig, which is then despatched with a long knife to the throat. Some of the pigs reach 250Kg, so it can be a fight, sometime a rifle is used to despatch the captive pig.
    A group of pigs can plough up a grazing field overnight with all the efficiency of a mad man on a rotovator. Farmers often welcome hunters on their land to get rid of problem herds of swine, but also Deer and Wallabies, both non indigenous species that were imported for ‘Sport”