By Cal Braid
Westwind Weekly News
When the Town of Magrath posted a notice in late April announcing a caution that “gopher mitigation” would be underway in public areas, the accompanying photograph was more eye catching than text. The photo was a simple picture of a marking flag with a sign attached to the stem. Two words on the sign stood out in bold print: Attention. Gopher Doom.
Gophers are technically Richardson’s ground squirrels (RSGs), and the Gopher Doom is technically chlorophacinone. It’s a chemical mixture branded as Poulin’s Gopher Doom and is exactly what it says it is. The Alberta government website calls RSGs “agricultural mammalian nuisances,” and they are considered a controllable pest. Skunks, mice, moles, rabbits, and porcupines also fall under this category. The label essentially relegates these mammals to the status of insects, insofar as their mere presence almost automatically puts them in conflict with human interests. From a human-interest standpoint, the label is valid: Nuisance animals carry diseases and often cause damage to property, land, and crops. The cost to agriculture operations can be huge.
The Town of Magrath contracted out the application of Gopher Doom and the mandatory signage to the treatment areas at the cemetery and sports field. One local pest control professional declined comment for reasons of avoiding further “public scrutiny.” However, the rationale behind using lethal treatments in municipal areas makes reasonably good sense. One can imagine a feeling of revulsion at the thought of gophers tunnelling through loved one’s gravesite. Limiting gopher waste on a soccer field becomes an issue when the ball contacts feces and then is handled. A player might handle the ball, then rub their eyes and nose or go eat a sandwich without washing their hands and contract a serious illness.
Toxic chemicals generally live up to their billing, and pest control can be a controversial issue. It’s a conflict of competing values; a classic tug of war where a landowner stands her ground, while opposite of her an activist digs his heels in. Clearly, the economics and productivity of agriculture and land use matter, as does disease control. On the flip side, animal welfare and habitat matter too, but to a lesser extent for most. People need to eat and stay healthy, and people are at the top of the food chain.
Acute poisons — mainly strychnine alkaloid is on its way out right now. Under the authority of the Pest Control Products Act, “Health Canada is cancelling the registration of strychnine,” states the Government of Canada. Strychnine is still legal to possess and use until March 2023 but has been removed from sale on the Canadian market. Strychnine is notorious for its ability to induce a relatively speedy but awful death. Anticoagulant poisons such as Rozol bait and Gopher Doom appear now to be the norm, and perhaps a softer touch in gopher mitigation. The intent is that when these chemical agents are placed down-hole, gophers consume them and then, feeling sick, retreat to their den where they remain sick and die rather painlessly several days later.
Regulatory measures are in place to safeguard against contamination carryover from toxic chemical treatments. In Magrath, the treatment contractor was required to insert the chemically treated grain into the gopher hole before covering the hole with displaced soil and marking the spot with a flag and sign. The primary priority is to protect public users from the chemicals. The secondary priority is to avoid poisoning other species inadvertently via their foraging or scavenging behaviours. Commercial use rodenticide products are regulated, and “bait must either be placed in tamper-resistant bait stations or in locations not accessible to children, pets, livestock or non-target wildlife,” according to the Canadian Government.
In a statement, Health Canada “acknowledges the importance of producers (…) and recognizes the need for pest control products that are effective, but do not pose unacceptable risks to human health or the environment.”
More information on RSGs, other pests and chemical treatments can be found through the Alberta Agriculture Ministry, the Province of Saskatchewan (Ministry of Agriculture), and Health Canada. Many detailed scholastic and professional studies are also available online or at an academic library.