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The Prairie plague

Prairie farmers says poisoining works best, but animals advocates want "five star hotels" to control gophers

Patrick McGee - June 18, 2007

Forget global warming, floods and summer droughts. What's really wreaking havoc across Canada's prairies these days is an epidemic that cost farmers upwards of $200 million last year alone. The culprit? A plague of gophers that has been chewing into farmers' profits since the early 1990s. That's when Ottawa banned the use of liquid strychnine, a poison used to control the rodents' population.

Also known as Richardson's ground squirrels, the critters are so numerous one farmer claims that, when they're moving across a field, a casual observer might assume the ground itself were moving. Another farmer says he lost upwards of $50,000 this year to the gophers' theft of food intended for his cattle.

"Farmers are having a considerable problem with these rodents and they need the tools to be able to control it," says Kerry Holderness, vice-president of the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan.

David Marit, president of the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities, agrees.

His group has asked government officials to prolong the implementation period of the ban until they find another way to bring the gopher problem under control. "And I think from what they've seen over the last few weeks in parts of southern Saskatchewan," Marit says, "they're definitely going to revisit that."

The ban is reminiscent of the decades-old prohibition of DDT, provoked by Rachel Carson's fraudulent study from her 1962 book Silent Spring, in which Carson claimed that birds of prey were being killed by DDT used to control mosquitoes. The subsequent DDT ban contributed to the spread of malaria across Africa. Today some claim that hawks, foxes and weasels are killed when they eat gophers poisoned with strychnine.

But Conservative MP Leon Benoit believes the ban was enacted in response to pressure from seven animal rights groups. He says "no scientific study of any kind" was presented, nor was there "evidence that any non-target species was being hurt."

Researchers are currently studying alternatives to the poison, but results have been disappointing. Phostoxin, a pellet dropped into gopher holes that dissolves into a lethal gas, is effective, but farmers say it's not practical for them to trudge through acres of land scouting for individual gopher holes.

More articles by Patrick McGee