Feral hogs have been spotted in a Canadian national park for the first time, raising fears that the wild pigs – which in recent years have rampaged across North America – will cause damage to sensitive ecosystems.

Parks Canada has confirmed that wild pigs – a hybrid of domestic pigs and European wild boar – have been spotted in Alberta’s Elk Island national park.

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“Public sightings and video sightings provided by landowners confirm that there is at least one sounder [a sow and piglets] in the region that is known to periodically come into the park,” Parks Canada spokesperson Janelle Verbruggen told the Canadian Press.

Elk Island, a fenced-in park 40km (25 miles) west of Edmonton, is home to one of the country’s largest wild bison herds.

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The pigs – which can weigh more than 300lb and move in groups called “sounders” – are voracious eaters of roots, bulbs, tubers, bird eggs and small amphibians. They destroy wetlands and contaminate water sources. The US Department of Agriculture estimates feral hogs cause more than $1.5bn in damage nationwide every year.

Verbruggen said the Alberta government is working with Parks Canada to prevent the hogs from establishing a permanent presence in the area.

The pigs were introduced to Canada’s Prairies in the 1990s by farmers, but have proved impossible to control once they escape the confines of a farm.

Hogs are “extremely smart and elusive”, according to the the Canadian Wild Pig Research Project.

Ryan Brook, who heads up the project at the University of Saskatchewan, told the Canadian Press that while Elk Island is the first to have feral pigs, he suspects Prince Albert national park in Saskatchewan will probably be next.

Experts say trapping is the best method to deal with the hogs – but an entire sounder must be trapped at once, or else the pigs will startle easily and disperse quickly.

While hunting has become an increasingly popular option in the United States – and one that went viral on social media after one farmer asked how he should handle “30-50 feral hogs” suddenly appearing on his property – experts say firearms spook the animals and often make the problem worse.

“While we fully support hunters and hunting, we also acknowledge that nowhere on Earth has hunting ever successfully controlled wild pig populations,” wrote Brook.

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