November 1, 2005 (38th Parliament, 1st Session)


Dale Johnston


Mr. Dale Johnston (Wetaskiwin, CPC)

Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to speak to the motion of my colleague from Vegreville—Wainwright, the goal of which is to put a tool in the hands of farmers to combat this very destructive pest. This may not be the sort of issue that makes a lot of impact in downtown Ottawa or Toronto, but it is a very important issue for farmers.
The Richardson's ground squirrel, otherwise referred to on the Prairies as a gopher, does a lot of damage to farmers' crops and machinery and does so in many different ways. They are burrowing pests that dig holes in the earth, which could actually be construed as aeration of the soil, I suppose, but they put up big mounds of dirt behind the hole and they attract predators.
The main predator is the badger. The gopher makes a hole about the size of a drinking glass, just large enough for him to slip down into an enlarged borrow at the end of that where there is a very complex maze of tunnels. The badger comes along and digs out the gopher, because the badger is a meat eating animal and the gopher is his prey.
However, the badger digs a hole about the size of your head, Mr. Speaker, or maybe larger, and that is what really causes damage to machinery and livestock. When people ride their horses across their pastures in pursuit of cattle, for instance, and the horse steps in that hole, not only is it damaging to the horse, it is very perilous for the person who happens to be riding the horse.
One of the tools that farmers have traditionally used for decades and decades, with good results and with safety, is the 2% strychnine. Over the last few years we have been able to purchase a 0.4% strychnine premixed base. This comes in small pails, a 20 litre pail or a 10 litre pail, at a cost of $75 a pail, and there is only enough to use on a few acres.
Two of the biggest problems with the premixed strychnine are, number one, the solution is so weak that it is not all that effective, and number two, the grain is damp and sealed up, so if we do not have timely delivery of the stuff in the first place and the proper weather to put out the bait or if we are delayed in putting it out, it very rapidly moulds, making it worthless.
Then the farmer has a $75 per pail investment in a product that is, number one, useless and, number two, difficult to dispose of. Thus, it has to be disposed of properly and if the farmer tries to use it he gets very poor if not negligible results.
Some people who have talked about this have made it quite clear to me that they have no idea of what a gopher even is. They hear “squirrel”. It is not the red squirrel, which we have in western Canada. It is not the grey squirrel, which is common to most of the boreal forest across Canada. It is certainly not the big black squirrel that people see around the Parliament buildings here in Ottawa. These are just nice furry little friends that basically live in the trees. They do not do any harm. They do not do a whole lot of good. They are just there.
What we are talking about is a Richardson's ground squirrel. They are prolific breeders. They have two and three broods a year. If left unchecked, they can ruin a farmer's cropland. Their method of living is to graze off the grain as it comes out of the ground. Each family of gophers will clear off an area that is probably 40 by 40 feet square. They will completely graze that grain off when it is growing up. The reason they do this is that most of their predators come from the air, so they like to be able to see their predators coming. If they are in high grass, it is difficult to get away from their predators and they rely on their speed and the fact that they can go down into their burrow to get away from their predator.
Therefore, when the crop grows up, not only is there the danger to livestock of stepping in the holes made by the badgers that go down digging for the gophers, but there is a loss of crop and a loss of grade.
“Grade” means the quality of the grain that is harvested. There was a grade of oats years ago called “gopher oats”, because after a while the crop did get ahead of the gopher and it headed out way too late to be harvested. When it was harvested the crop had immature and green kernels of oats, so the grade went down the drain. Of course it reduces the yield.
That is the problem. What is the solution?
For years and years the solution has been to use strychnine. Every agricultural service board in the provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, in the areas affected by Richardson's ground squirrels, has been utilizing these poisons very reliably and very responsibly with good results for decades and decades.
This problem has resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue for the farmers who cannot really afford to lose any more money. The farm community is really struggling now with poor commodity prices and high input costs. Farmers do not need another blow like this that restricts their control of this rodent.
The other method, other than poisoning, was to trap them. Trapping gophers on a thousand acres of land is a formidable task. It is very time-consuming and very labour intensive. If we were to advocate in the House for trapping with leghold traps, there would be a hue and cry even from the speakers we have heard from today who have been opposing the bill. If they oppose the poison, they would certainly oppose using leghold traps. So not only is that ineffective, it is expensive and labour intensive and there would be great resistance to it from our urban friends.
The other method, of course, is to shoot them. The problem with that is that we never get rid of the problem. If even 1% of the gophers are left on the land, they will do what gophers do and that is reproduce. The more they are hunted and the more pressure put on them, the larger their litters are. Then we end up with more gophers, so we would not get the results that we need.
This is a tool that farmers need. The question that we have to ask ourselves is whether the House cares whether farmers need that tool or not. If members do care, then either we should give them this 2% solution strychnine so they can mix it with their own grain, putting it on a timetable so that it is going to be effective and do the job that it is intended to do, or else we should come up with an alternative.
Has anyone offered an alternative in the 12 years that the 2% solution has been outlawed? No. Nobody has come up with any alternatives. Besides that, no one has done any studies to see whether or not birds of prey and pets and other unintended animals get into the poison. No one has done any of those things. They have just made a lot of assumptions. What has been assumed is that it is poison, it has to be dangerous, and therefore it has to be bad.
What has been done is that this tool has been taken away from the farmers. We might just as well take away their fuel as do this. It is one of those things that farmers must have. Farming is a very complex business. It has become a very marginal business as well, so anything farmers can do to improve their bottom line is absolutely essential for the economy of the farm.
Why have there not been any proper studies done on this? The government has to answer that question. There have not been any proper studies and I want to know why. I am certain that my colleague from Vegreville—Wainwright would like to know as well why there have not been any studies on this. I commend him for having stuck with this issue since 1993. Basically he has been the lone voice crying out for a method to control this pest.
If this were a pest causing as much damage to Highway 401 in Toronto, for instance, there would be a solution to this by now. Somebody would have come up with a solution to make sure that the 401 was freed of such a pest if it were causing the same kind of havoc to that highway as the Richardson's ground squirrel is causing for the farmers that my colleague from Vegreville--Wainwright and I represent.
We look forward to the day when we can use 2% strychnine, mix it with our own grain, and create our own bait to get this job done.

Topic:   Private Members' Business
Subtopic:   Agriculture
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