Never mind droughts, floods or blizzards, Saskatchewan is taking on a real natural calamity -- gophers.
Controlling gophers has been an issue in the province for more than a century and there have been countless efforts, ranging from hunting derbies to strychnine poisoning and gadgets like the Rodenator, which literally blows up gopher holes.
But dry weather in recent years has sent gopher numbers soaring, leaving many of those measures inadequate. Now the provincial government is upping the ante.
This week the government officially designated gophers a pest and included them in the Pest Control Act. That put them in league with rats, grasshoppers, club root disease, bacterial ring rot of potato and late blight of potato, and it gives municipalities the power to pass bylaws to eradicate the critters.
"We know we've got millions of them here," said Agriculture Minister Bob Bjornerud, who added that the province is the first in Canada to take such a drastic step. In some areas "you could virtually see the ground moving with them out there. … And they just wreck the land."
Mr. Bjornerud said the government is also extending a special rebate program that began last year and reimburses farmers half the cost of their gopher poison.
It's welcome news for ranchers like Gail and Bob Switzer, who have about 400 cattle southeast of Swift Current and have watched their land become covered with holes. The Switzers spent about $20,000 on gopher poison in each of the past two years and they are so desperate to control the rodents they'll buy bullets for any hunter willing to drop in and pop off a few.
"That's the best, then we know they are dead," Ms. Switzer said. Gophers "have just ruined acres and acres of land. We are starting to see gophers in lots of different areas where they weren't really a problem maybe three years ago."
David Marit, a farmer near Fife Lake, Sask., south of Moose Jaw, said gophers have started moving into other regions where they eat crops.
"They really love canola," said Mr. Marit, who is also president of the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities, which pushed for the pest designation. "We've heard guys losing a quarter section of canola to gophers."
Mr. Marit said the government's move means municipalities will now have the ability to be pro-active.
"What happens now is some ranchers and landowners will be very aggressive in trying to bring [gophers]under control. And then you'll have other properties where they don't. So the problem doesn't go away, it just gets worse and it spreads," he said. The pest designation "gives the municipality the authority to go into that property and to try and implement some control."
But declaring gophers a pest carries some ironies in a province that also seems to revere the creatures.
There's a 2.5-metre-tall gopher statue in Eston, Sask., an annual World Gopher Derby featuring gopher races and "Gainer the Gopher," the long-time mascot of the Saskatchewan Roughriders football team. Gainer was even honoured in the provincial legislature four months ago, on the eve of the 2009 Grey Cup, which the Riders lost to the Montreal Alouettes.
"It is kind of an irony," Mr. Marit said. "I guess it's no different than the national mascot which is a beaver, which is also a rodent."