Phil Merrill, provincial rat and pest specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, has been the face and the voice of the Alberta Rat Control Program for more than 30 years.
“Someone must have had incredible foresight and said we don't have rats, and we’re only going to battle them in the east. We can do this.”
The rats had arrived in Saskatchewan in the late 1920s and moved to the Alberta border in the 1950s.
Before a rat breeding population could take hold, the provincial government launched the Alberta Rat Control Program.
“We were half ready for them,” explains Merrill. “Our government was organized enough that we put the health department in charge of them because we didn’t want the disease factor to come into Alberta. The health department looked after it for one year. They then thought it was an agricultural problem and turned it over to the agriculture department.”
At that time, the rats were moving from one farm to another, and the program started with about 800 infestations. Every rat found along the Alberta-Saskatchewan border was eliminated.
“There were a lot of farms that were infested, and the rats had gone 18 miles into Alberta,” he says. “It took us a lot of years to whittle that down. We didn’t eradicate them in one year.”
“10 years later we still had hundreds of infestations a year. 30 years later, we had it whacked down to 20 or 15 infestations a year. Finally in 2000 we had zero infestations in that rat control zone.”
“Now we just maintain that rat control zone and we get 1 or 2 or 3 rat infestations a year, coming overland from Saskatchewan.”
Merrill says that the number one reason for the program’s success over the years is due to government dedication.
“They (the government at the time) said we don’t want rats and we’re going to put money into it. They backed it up with legislation that said that rats are illegal.”
The other advantage is Alberta’s geography - a cold north, mountains to the west and southwest, and open and unfriendly prairie to the southeast.
“So, it’s just the east that we need to have our rat control zone,” he adds.
He notes that farming innovation and changes in practices have helped contribute to the success of the program. Pig and chicken barns are now enclosed and built with cement floors. Farmers don’t store as much grain on the farm. When they do, it’s in steel instead of wooden granaries, built with steel or cement floors.
“You turn a rat in one of those facilities and they can’t live because they have no place to burrow and can’t get away. The risk has dropped a whole lot on our farms. That has helped us tremendously.”
As for changes to the program in the last 70 years, Merrill says that it is basically the same but it changes direction.
“We have a higher risk right now from rats coming into the province via transportation means - recreation vehicles and commercial trucks are the big ones.”
“We are finding we have to step up our urban pest control because we are getting more coming in on recreation vehicles. Our direction changes a little bit, but it is the same basic program. We don’t want rats, and when a rat comes, we get rid of it.”
If you spot what you think is a rat, call 310-RATS (7287). A reminder that pet rats are illegal in Alberta.