Rats on the run: a patrol defends Alberta against furry rodents from the east

The pest control officers drove along gravel roads, past fields colored dull gold with the stubble of last year’s wheat crop. It was early in May, and the snow was off Alberta’s rolling prairie farmland. So the officers had no time to waste. The Norway rats, those varmints from the east that snuck across the Saskatchewan border last fall to take up winter residence in Alberta hay bales and grain bins, would soon be dispersing their young. The officers were armed with shotguns and .22-calibre rifles and converging on a farm near the town of Bodo, 230 km southeast of Edmonton. It was there, just across the road from Saskatchewan, that farmer Blaine Wandler’s 11-year-old son had found a rat under a woodpile a week earlier. A subsequent inspection of the site uncovered a veritable infestation. “If they disperse, if we miss any today,” said Don Dallyn, one of three full-time and three part-time officers who maintain a vigil along the Alberta-Saskatchewan border, “we probably won’t find them until next spring.” By then, he said, a pair of rats ensconced in a nice, roomy grain bin could produce 400 to 1,000 offspring.

Norway rats–one of the most destructive rodents known to mankind–first arrived on the east coast of North America by ship from Europe about 1775. They advanced inexorably westward, by as much as 15 km a year, eating and contaminating crops, chewing up walls, undermining buildings and sewers, and spreading disease. But in 1950, when the rats crossed into Alberta, provincial officials drew a line in the prairie soil. They established a cordon sanitaire that now stretches 25 km wide and 500 km long, from Cold Lake in the north to the U.S. border in the south. Ever since, pest control officers have patrolled that buffer zone–baiting, poisoning, shooting or gassing every last rat that has put its furry paws on the Alberta side of the border. “One way or another,” says Michael Dolinski, head of Alberta Agriculture’s rat control program, “every rat that ends up in the province, ends up dead.”

The Alberta government spends $250,000 a year on rat control, even at a time when Premier Ralph Klein’s Conservative government has made deep spending cuts in other departments. Dolinski argues that the program is well worth it. If rats were to infest Alberta, he maintains, they could cause $25 million a year in damage to crops and buildings. In fact, experts estimate that, worldwide, rats consume or contaminate one-fifth of all field crops. And in neighboring Saskatchewan, where rats invaded in the 1930s, the provincial government, rural municipalities and the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool spend more than $700,000 a year in rural areas alone on home pest control. Most of that money goes towards controlling the rat population–although officials have little hope of ever eradicating them.

The border patrol is a point of pride among Albertans. But outsiders often scoff at the province’s claim to be one of the only inhabited regions on earth that is free of Norway rats. “You proclaim something like that, everyone’s on your case,” says Dallyn. But he says that rats multiply so quickly, it would be impossible not to notice if even a single pregnant female had penetrated into the Alberta interior. “It would be a matter of a year or two,” he says, “and everybody would know about it.”

The success of the Alberta rat control program relies on a simple fact of rodent life. For all their resilience, for all their ability to propagate, the rats have a critical weakness: they cannot survive the harsh prairie winter without the shelter and food they find where humans live. In order for rats to invade new territory, human settlements cannot be farther apart than the distance the rats can travel in a year. Along Alberta’s southern border with Montana, where farms are few and widely dispersed, the rats have never established a foothold. Nor can they advance across the uninhabited forests in northern Alberta, or the mountains along the western border with British Columbia. The central part of the border with Saskatchewan, thick with grain and cattle farms, is the rats’ primary point of penetration.

Just a few kilometres from that frontier, in their pretty white farmhouse near Chauvin, Alta., live Don and Bette Dallyn. Parents of five grown children and grandparents 11 times over, the Dallyns are the first husband-and-wife team in the history of Alberta rat control. “And you’ll find us a bit zealous,” said Don Dallyn, 59, who took over rat control in the Wainwright municipal district 18 years ago when the couple gave up dairy farming. Bette, 56, began working the Provost area, just south of Don’s district, six years later. “We had kids young,” explained Don. “When our kids grew up, Bette wanted to do something different.”

Pest control is no work for the faint of heart. And when Bette Dallyn was first hired, some of the farmers in the area wondered if she was up to the job. “I was accused, being a woman, of being afraid of mice and rats,” she said. “One guy tried his darndest to get me to pick up a mouse. Finally, I picked up some babies and I said, `Ah, we’ll have these for supper.’ ” She was joking, of course. “But I proved a point that day,” said Bette, clearly pleased with herself.

Most of the rat control officers’ work involves bait: rolled oats dusted with icing sugar and laced with warfarin, an anticoagulant that makes the rats’ blood run thin and kills them in about six days. The officers distribute the bait to farmers and lay out extra bait when they suspect an infestation. They also do a visual check of every possible rat refuge–from barns to abandoned shacks. Bette checks about 700 sites annually in her 594-square-mile district, three checks a year for the sites closest to the border. Her first year on the job, she found 146 rat infestations. Last year, she was down to 10. “That does not, of course, account for all the rats who ate the rat poison and died before anyone noticed them,” she cautioned.

Blaine Wandler tipped Bette off to the infestation on his farm. Although he lives in Bette’s district, eradication is always a group effort. And so Don Dallyn and two officers from Vermilion River County to the north–Orest Popil, 39, and Glen Garton, 35–came to help. About 200 m from the gravel road that serves as the Saskatchewan-Alberta border were three red grain bins. As Don Dallyn circled them, his trained eye caught the rodents’ telltale signs: rat droppings, a worn path between the bins, a scrap of plywood with rat-tooth marks. Bette figured the rats got in there last fall. “If I’d have found them in the winter, we’d have baited them,” she said. But the snow was too deep to check the bins then. And with the coming of spring and pregnant female rats ready to move on, there was no time to play around with slow-acting poison.

The group first attacked the scrap wood piled beside the bins. Bette Dallyn, Popil and Garton stood poised, guns trained, as Don lifted a sheet of plywood and two rats came scurrying out from underneath. Bang! Cows wandering by on the other side of a barbed wire fence paused to turn curious heads.

It was slow work–one board at a time–and tough shooting, with the rats twisting and running in all directions. The officers used shotguns with very fine pellets and .22s loaded with bird shot–“No ricochets that way,” said Don Dallyn. He recounted one hair-raising incident when a farmer, eager to help, got his own rifle from the house–loaded with solid-point bullets. “Orest and I were in the granary when he shot right through it,” said Don. “That’s why we like to use our own guys.”

Clearing the rats from the woodpile took all morning. Afterwards, the officers checked a site they eradicated the previous week. They found no new sign of rodents and there were smiles and “job-well-dones” all around. Then they drove into Bodo, to the Oilmen’s Diner Restaurant for lunch. The Bodo area is mixed agricultural and oil country, with oil wells dotted around the farmers’ fields. Dressed in their bright-blue coveralls, the pest control officers were conspicuous among the farmers and oilmen at the diner. But then, they are used to standing out from a crowd. “The good thing about the job is that you’re always the life of the party,” remarked a jovial Popil. “People are always asking you, `Are you for real?’ ”

For real, yes, and in poor economic times, at least, even envied. Full-time officers make $26,000 to $31,000; part-timers are paid a prorated salary. And 60 people applied for Garton’s part-time job when he got it last summer. Garton, who also farms 600 acres, says his family has long been supportive of rat control. “My dad said that we’ve had only two rats on our farm,” he said proudly. “He killed one with a pitchfork. The other,” Garton added with a grin, “he chased back to Saskatchewan.”

After lunch, it was back to the Wandler farm and the grain bins. When bins are full, rats do not usually enter them. They burrow underneath, then chew holes in the bottom of the bins. That way, grain filters down to them all winter long. Wandler figured he had lost a few bushels of grain. “But it’s not what they eat so much,” he said. “It’s the damage they do that’s so bad–they chew up everything in sight.” He would have to repair the bins, he said. And then he would have to prop them about six inches off the ground to ward off future infestations.

The actual eradication used homespun technology. As Wandler watched, Don Dallyn attached a black rubber hose to his car’s exhaust pipe, then shoved the other end of the hose under one of the bins. The rodents would either suffocate, or come out to face a firing squad. As the car exhaust started to take effect, Bette Dallyn, Popil and Garton levelled their guns again. One pink nose came out of a hole. Bang! “Head shot,” said Garton. Bang! Bang! “Good shot, Bette,” shouted Popil. And so it went, gassing and shooting, until the four rat control officers were satisfied that they had eliminated the latest threat to Alberta’s rat-free status.

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