Saskatchewan Declares War On Gophers

The Canadian province just passed a bill that designates gophers, or ground squirrels, a pest and includes them in the Pest Control Act. Liane Hansen speaks with wildlife scientist Gilbert Proulx, who has been a conducting a study on why the ground squirrels problem is so extensive in western Canada, and what can be done to address it.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Gophers have officially been declared a pest in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. The rodents, Richardson ground squirrels to be exact, are destroying acres of valuable pasture and farmland. Dr. Gilbert Proulx has been studying ground squirrels for a number of years and is currently researching different methods of addressing the problems. He joins us from his office near Edmonton, Alberta. Good morning, Dr. Proulx.

Dr. GILBERT PROULX (Director of Science, Alpha Wildlife Research Management): Yes, good morning.

HANSEN: Describe what happens to these fields after these ground squirrels come in.

Dr. PROULX: Well, the ground squirrels are like a bunch of small cows, and they feed on the grass, and they compete with the other animals that are grazers. And you know, these outbreaks of ground squirrel populations is not new in Canada or even in the United States.

Every decade since the beginning of Canada, there has been a few years of drought. We had a drought in the early 2000s, which kept the grass low. And when the grass is not growing well, the ground squirrels do very well because they like to be in the open.

HANSEN: Do you think they're worthy of being labeled pests?

Dr. PROULX: Well, the ground squirrel plays a real important role in its environment. They are the prey of many predators, and I could not think of a day when you get up in the prairies without listening to a ground squirrel.

HANSEN: I understand that the ground squirrels actually can warn each other about threats.

Dr. PROULX: Well, they talk a lot among themselves, and I think that when they see something that is scaring them, they whistle something that the others understand, and suddenly, we have a bunch of them all going underground.

HANSEN: Are there any solutions that can meet the interests of farmers who need to make a living and environmentalists who are concerned about protecting these animals?

Dr. PROULX: Yes, actually, there is. You know, like, every time we have an eruption of ground squirrels, farming communities are asking for the harshest poisons you can find on the market. And this is not the way to go.

There is a program that we have developed over the years. It's called an integrated pest management program. You know, when the population erupts and reach very high population densities, this is not the time to start to say, well, maybe I should have controlled them. You have to do it when the populations are at normal population densities.

It's a question of using common sense, not overgrazing the land, knowing that we are susceptible to droughts and using poisons that kill only the ground squirrel but not the predators, as well.

And if the farmers integrate controlled changes with chemical use, they will eventually control those populations without killing everything.

HANSEN: Dr. Gilbert Proulx is the director of science at Alpha Wildlife Research Management in Canada. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

Dr. PROULX: Thank you, it was a pleasure.

HANSEN: This is NPR News.

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