By Laura Keil
A Valemount business owner was shocked after discovering a rat that was not a common pack rat, but rather a black rat a foot and a half long.
The business owner, who wishes to remain anonymous, told the Goat they’d never seen this kind of rat before. The person trapped it, but says they’re concerned it’s one of a growing number of rats in the valley. Other residents have reported seeing similar rats, and say they must have hitchhiked to the area via train or boat.
Valemount Mayor Owen Torgerson and CAO Eric Depenau say there have not been any complaints about rats to the Village.
The Ministry of Land, Water and Resource Stewardship says it’s difficult to identify the species of rat based on the photo provided by the business owner, but it appears to be a roof rat (black rat). It could also be a Norway rat. The Ministry spokesperson said rats are not native to B.C. and apart from the nuisance they present to property owners, rats can also transmit disease and compete with other wildlife.
Kaylee Byers, a Post Doctoral Fellow at UBC’s School of Population and Public Health, says B.C. lacks a comprehensive reporting system for rats which makes monitoring their populations difficult.
“To be honest, we don’t really know what’s going on with rats in BC. BC is huge. Even in Vancouver, we don’t really know, (and) that’s where our research has been.”
She says information about rats is generally anecdotal, and comes in via pest control companies and local governments.
“There’s significant biases in that kind of information,” she says. “The people who call the city are the ones who really care about it, or maybe see something that’s a one-off. Or maybe … they’re just concerned about rats associated with waste (management). If you’re in an area where you see rats all the time, you’re probably not calling every day; and then calling pest control professionals to come manage rats implies you’ve got the funds to pay someone.”
She says in order to say anything about the rat population, even at a neighborhood level, you need surveillance systems, in other words, a program to monitor rat sightings or evidence of rats like burrows, oily marks around small spaces, or rat feces.
“These are things where you don’t actually have to see a rat or catch a rat to have some general idea of how many rats are in an area. So that’s really helpful. We don’t really have that (in BC). I think New York has programs where they actually go through and they do those kinds of what we call habitat assessments. But there’s nowhere in BC that I know that does anything like that.”
BC lacks what she calls “foundational data” about rat populations. In other words, knowing the baseline rat populations for rat varieties in different areas.
“It’s very possible that there are new sightings or that there’s been an increase in population and so people are starting to notice them. But without a sort of baseline, it’s really hard to say if it’s a new thing.”
The Goat spoke to several long-time locals who say they’ve dealt with the occasional solitary pack rat, but have never encountered a black rat or Norway rat.
The Province says there are a number of things people can do if they suspect rats are in the area. Sealing up holes and cracks larger than ¼ inch on buildings, keeping garbage securely stored, keeping building perimeters clear of debris, and safely cleaning up areas where rodents have been to avoid attracting new ones.
Byers says the health warnings are well-founded, as rats are common carriers of pathogens transmittable to humans, though only when humans come into close contact with them. Another health impact is the mental health one i.e. the fear of rats and their pathogens.
She says trapping rats does not always solve the problem. In fact areas that have been trapped have been observed to have greater disease spread likely due to mixing of different rat communities.
She says rats have long thrived alongside humans. The most effective way to tackle a rat problem may be to figure out how to keep rats out of our spaces and reduce attractants.
Wildsafe BC says rats tend to thrive only in urban areas where food is abundant or where winters are mild but that rats have now expanded their range as far east as the Kootenays. Rats are prodigious breeders, they say, and a pair of rats could theoretically produce over 900 offspring within a single year.
They can cause significant damage to buildings, electrical wiring, and crops and can chew through metal. They also threaten native wildlife and have decimated populations of ground-nesting birds. Rats will prey on small livestock such as chickens, especially their eggs and chicks, and can contaminate feed with their urine and feces. Controlling food and water sources, limiting denning areas and using exclusion techniques are key to keeping rats in check, Wildsafe says. Trapping rats may be required once access to habitat needs have been addressed. Rats are not a species the Conservation Officer Service deals with so if a resident needs help they can contact a pest control company. If trapping rats yourself, avoid using techniques that cause undue suffering or poisons that can be dangerous to pets, children and other wildlife especially raptors which are natural rat predators.