Tuesday, July 21, 2009  
   Volume 79 - Issue 29 Website:www.passherald.ca   email: passherald@shaw.ca   $1.00   
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Summer Games 

 

 
The agricultural lands that open up in the east of the Crowsnest Pass are home to many species of animal, and not all of them get along with farmers. But some fear that the practice of poisoning these destructive pests has the potential to in turn harm other animals in the food chain, including a species of symbolic importance to the area, the golden eagle.
The ground squirrel, commonly known as the gopher, is a tunnelling rodent that in large numbers can cause damage to crops and land. The use of poisons, including strychnine, is authorized by the province for the control of these pests.
However, though guidelines exist for the safe application of these poisons, there is concern that in some cases these guidelines are being neither followed nor enforced.
Dr. Alan Garbutt, a resident of the Porcupine Hills area near the Pass, has expressed these concerns after finding a dead golden eagle and observing poison operations nearby.
“We came home one day,” says Dr. Garbutt, “and there was a dead golden eagle in our yard.”
He could find no sign of injury on the bird, and estimates it had died only within the previous two hours, as rigor mortis had not set in and no flies were yet on the bird. He froze the bird and took it to Fish and Wildlife for testing.
Though the results of those tests are not yet available, Dr. Garbutt believes that the poisoning of local gopher populations may be the cause –– for this and for other dead animals he and his family have found in the area, where he says he has learned that several dead eagles are found every year.
Alberta Agriculture states on its website that poisons used to control pests have a chance of killing unintended wildlife targets when other wildlife eats a poisoned gopher. For this reason, Alberta Agriculture recommends placing poisoned bait inside gopher holes to reduce the chances of poisoned gophers appearing on the surface.
Farmers who use poison are recommended to gather dead gophers as quickly as possible and either bury or burn them to keep other animals from becoming infected.
 
Jeff Zimmer, a Fish and Wildlife officer working out of Pincher Creek, says that even though the guidelines exist, he is not aware of any legislation to legally enforce the manner of application, nor the disposal of dead pests.
He says that his personal research into the matter indicates that the dosage of strychnine in commercial gopher poisons is low, and unlikely to kill larger animals. He adds that in his personal opinion, there likely is secondary poisoning occurring in the area, even if ranchers are following the guidelines to the letter.
“No matter how diligent you are at picking up the dead ones,” says Zimmer, “you’ll likely miss some.”
Dr. Garbutt says that he believes the poison in this case is not being administered safely. He says that he found poison bait set out above the ground along a nearby road allowance, and not placed down into any gopher holes.
“There’s something wrong when you can go and toss large quantities of lethal material around the countryside,” says Dr. Garbutt. “If our dog or cats happened to pick up a dead or dying gopher, we’d lose them.”
He says that he was surprised to learn that it is legal to distribute poison without any safety valve.
“Apparently it’s legal to use lethal substances on public lands with no intent to prevent secondary poisoning,” he says. “We could be killing anything that eats meat.”
Zimmer says that the possibility exists that larger animals, such as coyotes, are being affected by poison as well. In his experience, however, the majority of secondary poisonings occur in raptors –– predatory birds –– that feed on the gopher populations through the foothills.
There are quite a few eagles that nest in the Porcupine Hills, says Dr. Garbutt, and he is afraid that many more could be dying in the area that no one knows about.
Anyone who finds dead wildlife, eagle or otherwise, can contact their local Fish and Wildlife office. Zimmer says that in cases such as a single dead coyote, there will likely be no investigation, but that Fish and Wildlife would take great interest if a lot of animals were found to be dying in any given area.
Alberta Agriculture lists other options ranchers can take to deal with gophers that carry less risk to other wildlife, including different types of poison that dissipate after death, or the use of gopher traps.
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