Health Canada’s decision to phase out strychnine to control the gopher population on farms appears to be based more on changing sensitivities rather than any new data indicating the environmental issues have worsened.
That’s unfortunate, because while sensitivities have changed, producers’ realities haven’t.
Strychnine has long been used to target Richardson’s ground squirrels, more commonly known as gophers, because it is the most effective way of controlling the population. It is also the cheapest and least time-consuming method.
When conditions are right, usually dry weather, these gophers can cause serious economic damage to farms. They are herbivores, so they eat crops — and are said to be especially fond of canola, of which about 20.5 million acres are expected to be planted in Canada this year.
On top of that, the numerous holes created by the burrowing creatures are a threat to livestock on pastures, resulting in damaged or broken bones. And their burrowing in crop fields creates dirt mounds that can damage equipment.
So an exploding gopher population is not a side issue for producers. It is a serious issue.
In 2018, the Pest Management Regulatory Agency, which operates under Health Canada, issued notice that it was looking at banning strychnine to control gophers. The PMRA issued its decision on March 4, indicating the chemical will be phased out over three years.
The PMRA says strychnine “has not shown that risks to the environment are acceptable when strychnine is used according to the current conditions of registration, or when additional mitigation is considered.”
The agency says gopher carcasses laced with strychnine can be found on the surface, which may then be devoured by other animals, including species at risk such as the swift fox and the burrowing owl.
A study last year by Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Agriculture found only a few dead field mice, but the PMRA says previous tests show that other animals have been found dead of strychnine poisoning and that poisoned gopher carcasses have been found on farmland.
In 2018, when the strychnine ban was first proposed, the Alberta government noted that “Richardson’s ground squirrel populations have the potential to explode in the absence of viable control options. This could result in huge financial impacts to agricultural producers.”
And that’s the reality of it.
Farmers will be forced to turn to other methods that are not all that palatable.
In 2006, during a particularly strong increase in the gopher population, one Alberta rancher reported shooting 5,000 rounds over Christmas to control gophers. Another reported shooting 40,000 rounds. Is this truly any better for the environment?
And it forces farmers to spend a lot of time in the fields. Most have other jobs to make ends meet with crop prices yielding small margins.
Several producer organizations have indicated they will file objections within the 60-day notice period.
The Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities is “appalled” at the decision with President Ray Orb warning that SARM “will take all steps needed to have the decision overturned, or at minimum have our producers compensated for any crop damage due to gophers.”
Strychnine was deregistered in 1992, only to be restored in 2001 during an explosion in the gopher population.
Meanwhile, no effective alternative has been found. Other chemicals, such as anticoagulants, are available but they are labour intensive, requiring multiple doses.
It is not enough for an agency like the PMRA to look at one chemical and declare it bad. It must have some responsibility to look at the larger picture to see if the decision to ban it will ultimately help the environment.
It is dubious in this case.
Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen, Brian MacLeod and Michael Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.