Rat patrol steps up war on hundreds of rodents at Medicine Hat landfill

By Sherri Zickefoose, Calgary Herald August 17, 2012 6:43 AM

Hundreds of rats infesting a Medicine Hat landfill have provincial officials scrambling to defend Alberta’s rat-free status.

More than 50 rats have been caught and killed at Medicine Hat’s garbage dump since the colony was discovered last week.

Single Norway rat sightings were first reported in the area last spring, officials say.

“We’re going to estimate that this infestation is small rather than large, and by small we mean several hundred rats as opposed to thousands,” said Vaughn Christensen, manager with Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development.

”And we do have it isolated and contained.”

The infestation is “one of our larger ones,” since the rat eradication program began in 1952, Christensen said.

“Occasionally, we get small investigations around the border.”

Agriculture Minister Verlyn Olson vowed to resolve the issue.

“We’re up to 52 now, and they’ve been destroyed,” Cypress County agricultural fieldman Jason Storch said Thursday.

Workers are monitoring the site around the clock with infrared digital cameras and bait traps loaded with poisoned food and water. Neighbouring homes and farms have also been outfitted with poisonous traps to prevent the spread of pests.

If needed, bull snakes may be let loose at the landfill.

A single pair of healthy rodents are capable of breeding 15,000 young in a year.

“It’s very hard to tell how many are in there. There’s no way of knowing. But we’re making headway at this point,” said Storch.

“We’re just monitoring it and that’s going to continue until they’re all gone,” he said.

Dozens of bait stations are set up about every three metres around the landfill.

“We’re doing more perimeter baiting to keep ahead on everything. The trick here is to get ahead of them.”

Alberta claims to be rat-free, and has only experienced isolated cases of the rodents since the 1950s.

The province, which spends $350,000 a year on its rat-control program, has 11 rat inspectors who patrol the border with Saskatchewan, aiming to prevent the vermin from destroying crops.

Six counties and municipal districts participate in the patrol of the rat-control zone, which is 30 kilometres wide and stretches 390 kilometres from the Montana border to Cold Lake.

Despite the efforts, rodents carried by shipping containers on airplanes, trucks and trains, and some bought by pet owners as snake food, show up in Alberta frequently, officials say.

The City of Calgary fields about 200 rat calls each year, but almost all turn out to be squirrels, muskrats or gophers.

In 2011, four pet rats were discovered in Calgary. Last year, the city located five Norway rats. One came dead in a truck, and the other four were categorized as pets, or fancy rats.

City officials issued a warning that it is illegal to keep rats as pets after three Norway rats were seized from two homes last February.

Possession of a rat can lead to a fine of up to $5,000.

Norway rats can measure up to 25 centimetres long and weigh around half a kilogram.

Provincial law requires that rats discovered in Alberta either be euthanized or removed from the province.

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