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Around 1775, the Norway rat found itself on the shores of North America and its spread began at that point. As people moved west, so too did the rats. Settling in farms and cities, the rats found lots of food, warm places to sleep and plenty of people.
In Saskatchewan, rats began to enter the province around the 1920s, moving eastward and spreading at about a rate of 24 kilometres per year. In 1950, the first rats were reported on the eastern border of Alberta.
They would have continued to spread into Alberta if not for a unique program that would result in Alberta joining Antarctica, the Arctic, a few isolated islands and parts of New Zealand as the only rat-free locations on the planet.
The first Norway rats discovered in Alberta were in the summer of 1950 on a farm near Alsask. Discovered by field crews from the Alberta Department of Health, the province began to worry about the rats spreading plague in Alberta. It was at this point that the Alberta government decided to halt the spread. Responsibility for this measure was given to the Department of Agriculture.
The program was conceived by William Lobay, the supervisor of crop protection and the director of the rat control program from 1950 to 1953.
The program would run from 1950 to 1953. To start, preserved rat specimens were distributed to agricultural offices to help with the identification of rats. In 1951, five employees who had been working on weed inspection provided training to municipal pest control inspectors.
To give the public knowledge on what kinds of rats to look for and what to do, conferences were held in six towns in eastern Alberta. As well, 2,000 posts and 1,500 pamphlets were distributed in the province. The Rat Control in Alberta program of 1951 pushed to eliminate the nests of rats, their food supplies, and to rat-proof buildings.
Through the program, by the fall of 1951, 30 rat infestations had been found along 180 kilometres from the eastern border of the province. One year later, rats were found along 270 kilometres from the border. While some rats were found farther from the border, most infestations were found within 10 to 20 kilometres of the border. Most rats were no more than 50 to 60 kilometres from the border.
Since the province did not have the expertise to deal with the approaching rats, a private pest control firm was hired to control the rats until an effective program could be developed. Under a new program, which ran from June 1952 to July 1953, 63,600 kilograms of arsenic trioxide tracking powder was used to treat 8,000 buildings on 2,700 farms. This amounted to 24 kilograms of poison per farm and eight kilograms of poison per building. The area treated was a 300 kilometre stretch from Medicine Hat to Provost, running 20 to 50 kilometres wide.
The program was not cheap, costing $152,670 in 1952, or $1.4 million in today’s funds. Three-quarters of the cost went to the tracking powder. From 1953 to 1978, the cost of dealing with the rats along the border would not go above that 1952 cost.
From 1953 to 1959, the program continued and the southward spread of rats was halted at the Cypress Hills, while rats continued to move north until 1958. That year, they were stopped by the boreal forest near Cold Lake.
In 1954, the province started paying 50 per cent of the salary and expenses of a full-time pest control inspector for the seven main municipalities along the border. The pest inspector was responsible for checking every premise within 29 kilometres west of the border, distributing bait and bait station, pushing for rat-proofing of building and destroying any rats that were found. In the mid-1950s, warfarin bait was used to deal with the rats. This bait subsrate is still used in Alberta to control rats at the border.
The Agricultural Pests Control Act would also be passed, making it mandatory for property owners to control rats. Those who did not deal with rats would receive an official warning, and if it continued, court action would be taken. It took until 1955 before any court action was conducted and in 1956, 17 notices for control were issued, and three court actions and convictions resulted.
Since 1956, no court actions have been issued under the Act.
While the program was proving effective, rat infestations at the border increased from one in 1950 to 573 in 1955. By 1963 that number fell to 300, then to 150 in 1980. By 1990, there were 30 rat infestations, and zero by 2003. In 2007, there were two and in 2014 there were four, followed by none in 2016.
Today, the province handles 100 per cent of the funding and all premises within a 29 kilometre wide and 600 kilometre long control zone are inspected annually. Typically, 2,000 to 4,000 buildings are inspected annually.
Today, white rats are only allowed in zoos, universities and colleges, as well as research institutions in Alberta. Citizens are not allowed to have any form of rat as a pet.
A rat control hotline has also been set up but since most Alberta residents have never seen a rat in the wild, the calls to the hotline are usually for pocket gophers, mice, muskrats and ground squirrels that have been mistaken for rats.
Information for this piece came from Alberta.ca, Wikipedia,