Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Unintended consequences of a bounty (and good news and a nasty rumour)

Photo by Rick Price

This disturbing image is from a news story about the Saskatchewan coyote bounty spilling over the border into Alberta. Saskatchewan “hunters” were going into wild places like the Cypress Hills in Alberta to shoot coyotes. After cutting off their paws to turn in for the $20 bounty, they dumped the carcasses in front of a farm near Elkwater. Read the story here.

There is some good news on the coyote bounty, though. After hearing from Nature Saskatchewan and other groups, including the Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation, the provincial government has introduced a new initiative to compensate farmers for damage caused by predators. This new program will pay farmers 100 per cent of the market value of livestock killed by coyotes or other predator animals. It will also pay farmers up to 80% of market value for any animal that is injured by a predator enough to require veterinary attention.

At the same time, however, I keep hearing rumours that Saskatchewan Agriculture has approved the use of the infamous 1080 poison to kill livestock predators.
It's bad enough that farmers are being encouraged to use strychnine to kill Richardson’s ground squirrels (RGS, commonly known as “gophers”). The Saskatchewan Government extended the Gopher Control Rebate Program for 2010. It provides a 50% rebate to producers and Rural Municipalities for the cost of gopher control products. The federal Pest Management Regulatory Agency has also approved the provincial government's application to extend the emergency registration of strychnine to July 31, 2010. (source: Nature Saskatchewan). Like the coyote bounty, poisoning gophers has significant unintended consequences.

At the Prairie Conservation and Endangered Species Conference in Winnipeg a few weeks ago, one of the most startling posters presenting recent research came from Alberta's Gilbert Proulx, Director of Science, Alpha Wildlife Research and Management. Here is a quote from the poster's abstract: "Although it is known that the use of indiscriminate poisons poses potential threats to wildlife, since 2008, southwest Saskatchewan farmers have used large quantities of 0.4% strychnine (acute poison available as freshly mixed and ready-to-use baits ) and chlorophacinone (anticoagulant causing fatal hemorrhages) to control ground squirrel populations. In the last 2 years, I have gathered field evidence that both strychnine and chlorophacinone efficiently controlled ground squirrels but also killed a diversity of songbirds, small mammals (mice and voles), and predators including raptors, canids, American badger (Taxidea taxus),and long-tailed weasel (Mustela frenata)."

Among the non-target species found dead around the strychnine bait stations on Proulx's study sites were Horned Lark, Chestnut-collared Longspur (new to the threatened species list), Western Meadowlark, and Vesper Sparrow.

High populations of Richardson's ground squirrels (as the Sask. Agriculture website itself tentatively admits) result from bad grazing practices. Ranchers who find ways to treat their grass well don't have problems with RGS. Don't get me started on the decline of predators--including the threatened Ferruginous Hawk, which feeds its young nothing but ground squirrels, and badgers. Coyotes too, of course, eat a lot of ground squirrels, so the circle of unintended consequences goes round and round chasing its own tail.


  1. Wondering what your thoughts are on using Anhydrous Ammonia as an agent for killing gophers. Once it dissipates into the atmosphere, there is not remaining poison. Also, if it is injected directly into the holes of the RGS, then it doesn't hit the other animals you mentioned as there are no bait stations. I'm not advocating nor decrying, but just wanting to hear some educated discussion.

  2. Why has there been no mention of a product named the Rodenator? This device will kill all of the RGS within the tunnel systems with no poisons used. The Rodenator uses concussion to kill instantly and it is very humane. It is made in the States and legal to use in Canada. The Rodenator mixes propane and oxygen and injects it down the tunnel systems of any type of burrowing pest animal. The mix is then ignited and the resulting concussion will instantly crush the animals within. I have talked with people that have used the Rodenator and they say it is extremely effective. It just makes sense to use it and keep things green.

  3. Paul and Ed:

    Thanks for those suggestions for alternatives to Strychnine. I don't know a lot about killing ground squirrels, but if those two options don't affect non-target species or cause secondary effects--and I would guess they do not--then they would be preferable.
    Unfortunately, poison like strychnine is so darn easy to use because you just put it out at a few central bait stations. I.e. you don't have to put it down all the burrows to have it work.

    Much appreciated,

  4. I wonder how much damage Richardson's Ground Squirrels really do. We had some in our pasture in Saskatchewan when I was a kid, but they were not a problem. A lot of farmers just want to kill every living thing on their land that isn't crop or livestock. Check out my gopher pictures at

  5. I wonder how much damage Richardson's Ground Squirrels really do. We had some in our pasture in Saskatchewan when I was a kid, but they were not a problem. A lot of farmers just want to kill every living thing on their land that isn't crop or livestock. Check out my gopher pictures at

  6. Ken:

    It's a question worth asking. Clearly, RGS do eat crops and grass, make holes where people don't want them, and can turn a hay field into a mess of mounds that can be difficult to mow. But what I notice is that they are often a problem on poorly managed pastures where the grass is continuously grazed without a lot of thought for the health of the soil and grass. Ranchers and grass farmers who manage their land well seem to have fewer problems with RGS. Thanks for writing.


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