Learning Alberta’s lessons
Could Alberta’s experience help the wider world? Today’s rat control projects mostly involve eradicating entrenched populations on islands, rather than preventing rats getting in. The motives are different too: Alberta’s move was largely economic.
“I think underlying a lot of eradications around the world is a cost-benefit analysis, but it’s very difficult to quantify and in most cases we’re doing it for the conservation of native wildlife rather than through a financial perspective,” says Tony Martin, who led the recent rat eradication project on South Georgia in the South Atlantic.
There, rats were poisoned by bait dropped from helicopters in an eight-year project that cost £10m. Martin’s work was largely funded by donations; he says applying a financial perspective to eradication projects might mean “that money to do the work is more readily available”.
He says that while the two projects were very different, he has “enormous admiration” for what Alberta has achieved. “The fact that they have done so much better than everywhere else in the world is absolutely astonishing. This is unique; it’s not just a town that they’ve managed to keep rat-free, it’s a vast area of terrain.”
He highlights public sentiment as the “single most important factor” in successful projects, saying: “You need to have the interest and the support of the people to carry it out.” Opposition from just a few can derail them – on Australia’s Lord Howe Island, rat eradication has just begun after 20 years of argument. Looming is New Zealand, which has announced an ambitious project to rid itself of introduced predators by 2050 to protect its biodiversity. The idea has been hailed by many, but already there are plenty of critical voices.
In Alberta, there doesn’t seem to be much debate over rat control. McTavish says when she moved there in 2007, she noticed people “seemed very proud” of it. “It seemed to be linked with the identity of Alberta: Being Albertan was knowing this and participating in it,” she says.
Phil Merrill says public support is crucial. “If we have an infestation in someone’s yard, we hear about it right now. We know people are going to report it.” There are a few dissenters – people who oppose the pet rat ban (some flout the law and there’s a three-year-old petition to change it) and parts of the pet industry who raise snakes (rats must be frozen). But mostly “people are very, very happy they don’t have to deal with rats”.
“We get a few animal lovers that think we’re picking on rats and I guess we are, but we have a real good argument: we love native rats – muskrats, packrats. If he can live in the environment without man, great. But if he has to have our food and our garbage and our shelter, then we don’t want him.”
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