Agricultural producers across Saskatchewan and Alberta are angry about Health Canada’s decision to de-register the use of two percent liquid strychnine to control Richardson’s ground squirrels.
They say there is no safer alternative available.
The Pest Management Regulatory Agency released its re-evaluation decision last week. It had been reviewing the use of strychnine for this purpose since 2018 and will phase out its use by March 4, 2023.
Those who object to the decision have 60 days to do so, and organizations and individual farmers are lining up to complain.
Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities president Ray Orb said members are appalled by a decision that will have wide-ranging consequences.
“We’re pretty upset about this,” he said.
He said municipalities met with PMRA officials to describe the devastation Richardson’s ground squirrels, most often called gophers, can do. PMRA was concerned about secondary poisoning.
“They said they didn’t have any evidence really, it was anecdotal,” Orb said.
Last year, the Saskatchewan agriculture ministry conducted a study, which PMRA quotes in its decision. It indicates only four deer mice died as a result of strychnine intended for gophers.
Still, PMRA said the fact that non-target species can be poisoned is reason enough to discontinue the registration. The product cannot be sold after March 4, 2021.
PMRA said in an emailed statement the 2019 Saskatchewan study confirmed earlier studies that “when strychnine baits are applied according to label instructions this will result in the availability of treated bait ejected from some burrows and a number of strychnine-poisoned Richardson’s ground squirrel carcasses on the surface of the field.”
PMRA said the Saskatchewan study was a small sample.
“The level of non-target exposure is expected to be high when considering application to a large field area,” it said.
“Overall, the conclusions from the 2019 study supported the observations discussed in previous consultation documents.”
Provincial agriculture minister David Marit disagreed.
He said historical literature shows that strychnine offers the best control.
“We’ll obviously be objecting to (the decision),” he said in an interview. “Our concern is, what’s the alternative? And also, the concern will be, when there’s another outbreak like we had it could be devastating to the agricultural community.”
From 1992 to 2001, strychnine wasn’t registered and the Richardson’s ground squirrel population exploded, causing millions of dollars in losses to hay, pasture and cropland. Chemicals used at the time didn’t work, leaving farmers to try to shoot as many gophers as they could.
Marit said it’s unrealistic to expect no dead gophers above the ground.
“We proved it was the best means of control,” he said. “Why would you go against the science and research that’s been done?”
Saskatchewan Stock Growers Association president Bill Huber said producers asked PMRA to keep strychnine available until something that works as well is in place.
He said some other chemicals “just give the gopher a tummy ache for a couple of days.”
Huber is encouraging SSGA members to contact PMRA, their members of Parliament and provincial MLAs to fight the decision.
“The thing that really ticks me off is we’re going to lose millions and millions of dollars on this and then we’re going to go after the government to compensate us for some of our losses, whether it be through Saskatchewan crop insurance or wildlife compensation,” he said.
Huber added that farmers and ranchers know how to look after their operations.
“But no, we’ve got to have some scientist or some bureaucrat telling us from a sixth-floor office tower in Ottawa that we’re doing it wrong.”
Farmers across the two provinces are also outraged.
“As a producer I find it very frustrating that government agencies use political pseudoscience to attack the use of products such as strychnine and neonicotinoids lately,” said Henry Colpoys, who operates a mixed farm near Strathmore, Alta.
He said public servants are too isolated from the true consequences of their decisions.
“Farmers need strychnine to control gopher infestations. Without it our crops will be destroyed. Strychnine should not be removed from the market until an alternative that controls gophers as well as strychnine is in place at reasonable costs,” said Dwayne Gechter from Whitla, Alta.
He said farmers in his area use strychnine cautiously and responsibly.
“We are aware that strychnine is non selective and we do make an effort to ensure we use it properly,” added Mike Schlenker, also from Alberta.
Others who contacted The Western Producer described the decision as “a huge mistake” that will cause devastation.
PMRA did not offer a comment on what alternatives are available.