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Manitoba History: Manitoba’s War on Wildlife

by Gordon Goldsborough
Department of Biological Sciences, University of Manitoba

Number 59, October 2008

It was inevitable, as European-style agriculture was imposed on the prairie ecosystem starting in the 1800s, that human interests would come into conflict with those of wild animals. Manitoba’s Municipal Act, first enacted in 1873, instructed municipalities to pass by-laws “for the destruction of wolves, foxes, gophers and rats within the municipality and for fixing the indemnity to be paid therefore, the proof required that any animal was killed within the municipality and the manner of payment.” [1] In other words, municipal officials actively aided and abetted a war on wildlife that went on throughout the twentieth century.

Mechanization during and after First World War was undoubtedly responsible for remarkable gains in farm crop yields. But this was only a benefit if most of the crop ended up in the farmer’s granary. Consumption in the field by pests represented an unacceptable loss, especially when every bit of food was needed to sustain Canada’s war machine overseas. Public enemy number one was the “gopher,” a collective name for three common species occurring in Manitoba at the time: the Flickertail or Richardson’s Ground Squirrel (Spermophilus richardsonii), the Scrub Gopher or Franklin’s Ground Squirrel (Spermophilus franklinii), and the Striped Gopher or Thirteen-Lined Ground Squirrel (Spermophilus tridecemlineatus). By feeding on developing grain heads, gophers were a threat that no farmer could ignore. During the summer of 1917, for example, there were an estimated 10 million gophers in western Manitoba, at densities ranging from 5 to 30 per acre. They could consume or spoil an estimated two and a quarter million bushels of grain, so killing even two million of them would translate into a saving of half a million bushels. The threat to the Allied war effort was clear. One especially imaginative advertisement in the Western Municipal News magazine portrayed gophers as invading German soldiers, replete with spiked helmets and scythes.

Gophers were portrayed as invading German soldiers, intent on destroying the crops of patriotic Manitoba farmers, in this March 1918 poison advertisement.
Source: Western Municipal News, March 1918, page 75.

A 1918 government pamphlet advised that “gopher shooting with a .22 is good business as well as good sport,” but the primary weapon in the farmer’s arsenal against gophers was poison. Anton Mickelson, one of the primary purveyors of gopher poison at the time, became well-known in municipal circles, and a regular attendee at annual conventions, where he offered wholesale prices to municipalities. He arrived on the Manitoba scene around 1912, when his company and others began marketing such products as Kill-Em-Quick, Ready Rodo, Gophercide, Bolduan’s Poisoned Grain, and My Own. Home-made recipes with names like North Dakota Mixture and Canadian Vinegar Mixture were also available. The active ingredient in all of them was strychnine, and commercial formulations were usually a greenish-blue liquid smelling strongly of vinegar. Mixed in a gallon pail of water, wheat or oats would be added until the solution was fully absorbed. Then the poisoned grain would be spread on the ground at places frequented by gophers. It was well known that gophers could travel considerable distances from their burrows to grain fields, so non-agricultural sites were also targets for gopher control. A 1912 resolution by the Union of Manitoba Municipalities (UMM) urged railways to destroy gophers burrowing on their rights-of-way. A 1917 resolution wanted the Municipal Act amended to give municipalities the right to pass by-laws making gopher destruction compulsory on all residents, and a 1919 resolution wanted municipalities to be able to bill land owners who were derelict in their gopher-killing duty. In the 1930s, the UMM wanted municipalities to prohibit the trapping of weasels—natural gopher predators—and some municipalities gave out free poison.

Warriors for the battle against gophers were also recruited in the schoolyard, as programs of the Manitoba Agriculture and Immigration Department, coordinated by the Municipal Commissioner’s office and local municipal offices, encouraged children to participate in gopher eradication programs. Kids who caught, killed, and collected gopher tails (as proof) could win prizes for their schools. In 1917, some 100,000 gopher tails were turned in during four days of effort. [2] A 1918 school competition offered a first prize of a record player and a collection of records. Second prize was a nine-volume set of Cassell’s Illustrated History of England. (One can only imagine the enthusiasm with which students would fight for that prize!) And Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs around the province turned in a resounding 483,567 tails in 1919. [3] Through the 1920s and 1930s, bounties were paid for tails. The Rural Municipality (RM) of Glenwood offered the princely sum of five cents per tail in 1933 while the RM of Shoal Lake gave a more usual fee of one cent—the first time it had paid any bounty—but it nevertheless succeeded in collecting 78,238 tails. [4] The RM of Louise paid out $395.35 in 1936, for 39,535 tails. [5] And the municipal programs continued into at least the mid-1940s. Generations of school children—many now in their senior years—have fond memories of the campaign against these “submarines in the wheat field.”

Three gopher species were widely distributed across much of southwestern Manitoba, as shown in this 1918 map from a provincial government pamphlet advocating their eradication.
Source: Manitoba Agriculture and Immigration pamphlet, 1918, Manitoba Legislative Library.

Once the Great War was over and the spread of global socialism became the new enemy, gophers were vilified not as Germany soldiers but as “Bolshewheaties” striving to liberate wheat fields in the name of the proletariat critters. And the carnage continued. In the spring of 1919, 510,000 flickertail gophers were poisoned and, in 1921, a one-day shooting record of 385 gophers was set (by one person). The Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities, counterpart to the UMM, got into the business of making and selling its own “S.A.R.M.” brand of strynchine-based gopher poison, which it offered at low prices with free shipping to any point in Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Manitoba. It sold 160,812 cans in 1935 alone. [6]

Radical gophers. In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, gophers were portrayed as “ Bolshewheaties” in this 1920 advertisement for gopher poison from the Western Municipal News.
Source: Western Municipal News, March 1920, page 95.

The dastardly wolves in our fairy tales are but one sign of the long-held revulsion that humans have had for these predatory animals. In 1893, the Manitoba legislature passed “An Act to Encourage the Destroying of Wolves” without providing any specific reason to do so. The reason was probably understood to be common sense, for wolves were widely represented as an unacceptable threat to domestic animals. The Act authorized the treasurers of all Rural Municipalities to pay a bounty of $2 for each wolf killed, to a maximum of $300 per year. A complicated system of verification was set up to protect municipalities from being conned by dishonest hunters. (Wolf heads had to be presented “with the ears on” to no fewer than two Justices of the Peace, who would then cut off the ears and issue the hunter with a certificate to be redeemed at the municipal office.) Municipalities would then be reimbursed by the Municipal Commissioner for half their total bounty payment. In 1906, the bounty was increased to $5 for “timber wolves” but retained at $2 for “ordinary wolves” (i.e., coyotes). The requirement for municipalities to front the cash and seek reimbursement was challenged unsuccessfully by the UMM in 1911. It asked to have the bounty doubled in 1913 and 1917, and the province to pay the entire bounty in 1916. In 1913, the use of poisons for killing wolves was prohibited, under threat of a $50 fine, presumably to safeguard domestic dogs and “good” wild animals which might inadvertently stumble upon and eat the poison. Between 1907 and 1931, statistics maintained by the Municipal Commissioner show that wolf bounties were mostly paid to municipalities in wooded areas of the province although, surprisingly, the highest bounty—an average of $438 per year, ranging from $69 to $2,103—was paid to the RM of Portage la Prairie, which was mostly prairie. Even some villages, towns and cities paid out wolf bounties, probably for kills in their outskirts, but the amounts were generally small, averaging less than $10 a year.

Wolf hunters. Leslie Poole and Verne Ferris display a timber wolf they shot at Macdonald near Portage la Prairie, 1952.
Source: Portage Daily Graphic, 17 June 1952, PCI Archive, Yosh Tashiro Collection

Justice was swift and ruthless for wolf bounty swindlers. In 1932, three men from St. Lazare went from office to office in the RMs of Ellice, Woodworth, Hamiota, Harrison, Blanshard, Wallace, Oakland, Whitehead, Edward, and Birtle, acquiring bounties ranging from $12 to $14, for rabbit heads passed off as those of wolf pups. The men were found guilty and sentenced to “two years at hard labor in Stony Mountain penitentiary.” [7] Before they had completed their sentence, the province did away with bounties altogether, citing hard economic times and widespread fraud. Some municipalities maintained the bounties without provincial support while those which did not became, in the words of one 1935 letter writer to the Winnipeg Free Press, “wolf sanctuaries.” [8] The UMM resolved, in 1934 and again in 1936, to urge the province to make it compulsory for all municipalities to pay a bounty. A $5 province-wide bounty was reinstated. But a perceived increase in the number of wolves in the Interlake during the late 1930s justified a UMM resolution to raise the bounty to $15 per adult and $5 per pup, and to pay a bounty year-round, as opposed to just during the summer months. Another perceived wolf surplus in 1951 was the basis for a resolution calling for the bounty to be increased to $25. As circumstances warranted, municipal councils decided whether to pay bounties in some years and not in others. But concerns over fraud remained. A 1951 UMM resolution urged that the bounty for pups not accompanied by an adult wolf head or pelt be cut in half, on grounds that aboriginal hunters were not killing adults so as to “keep seed” for a steady income.

The scientific basis for thinking that wolf eradication would protect domestic animals is shaky. Wolf bounties paid out between 1907 and 1931 peaked every nine years, in 1907, 1917 and 1926, probably because there were more wolves available to be killed in those years. Periodic waxes and wanes in predator populations are understood by wildlife biologists to reflect cycles in the abundance of prey animals. Since the supply of domestic animals is not typically cyclical, varying instead as a result of economic factors, it is likely that the number of wolves was determined more by the abundance of wild rodents and hares than by availability of sheep, chickens, and cattle. While it is undoubtedly true that some farmers suffered losses when wolves attacked their livestock, in general, the wolf bounty played on a widespread public misperception about wolves. On the other hand, it is likely that widescale replacement of native plants on the prairies with agricultural species, and the adoption of farm practices to maximize plant yield, led to greater overall food availability for plant-eating animals. This, in turn, provided more prey for wolves, so they flourished.

The total annual wolf bounty paid in Manitoba, between 1907 and 1931, peaked every nine years, probably as wolves flourished when their prey animals did so too. This runs counter to the argument by farmers that wolves thrive by eating their livestock. Data were obtained from budgetary summaries compiled and published annually by the provincial government.
Source: Data obtained from Manitoba Legislative Library

Human attitudes about crows have been more ambivalent than for wolves. Some argued that crows threatened game birds, especially prairie chickens, by destroying their eggs. In 1924, the RM of Lorne proposed a new bounty to be established on crows, on much the same terms as wolves. [9] Between 1925 and at least 1929, the province sponsored a crow extermination competition, coordinated out of municipal offices, in which participants were given two points for every crow egg turned in, and four points for each crow leg (eight for a pair). The annual egg count ranged from 81,228 (in 1926) to a staggering 177,564 (in 1929); leg counts were understandably less, averaging 75,607, since crows typically had fewer legs than eggs. [10] Despite the impacts on crow populations that loss of these numbers of eggs would represent, hunters in 1935 remained adamant that crows “destroyed more wild game birds than all the hunters of the land” and that the UMM should petition the provincial government to increase the bounty accordingly. As recently as 1972, the UMM renewed its opposition to crows, arguing that they (as well as blackbirds) damaged sunflower crops in the southern agricultural belt.

The basis for opposition to other perceived pests has not always been based on scientific evidence. In 1990, the UMM passed a resolution calling for the establishment of a bounty on magpies—a crow relative—not because they ate crops or killed valuable game animals, but because they “are scavengers and chase away harmless species.” [11] A similarly dubious motive underlay a 1942 UMM resolution on crow ducks which, despite their name, are related to neither crows nor ducks. Also called cormorants, the fish-eating birds nest around Lake Manitoba, Lake Winnipegosis and other water bodies, and are widely perceived as having excessively voracious appetites that deprive lake fishers of their rightful share of the resource. This contention has never been proven. From the late 1940s to the mid 1950s, the provincial government assisted commercial fishers on Lake Winnipegosis in destroying cormorant colonies, reducing bird numbers from 39,000 in 1945 to about 19,000 in 1951.

The killing fields. A 1928 provincial report gave the results of that year’s gopher and crow extermination contest.
Source: Manitoba Agriculture and Immigration, 1928, Manitoba Legislative Library.

“Rats”—or more properly, muskrats—have long been sought by trappers, but they are a perennial thorn in the side of municipal road workers, especially where routes go through wet, low-lying areas that the scaly-tailed rodents find attractive. By burrowing in road grades, muskrats compromise the structural integrity of the road bed. At its 1905 founding convention, the UMM passed a resolution advocating the removal of protection for muskrats which would allow them to be “destroyed in any manner.” [12] In 1925, the provincial government passed an order-incouncil to permit the “trapping, killing or capturing of muskrats between October 1 and November 15 on highways, road allowances and 440 yards on each side of such road allowances, in townships 13 to 22 inclusive in ranges 17 to 29 inclusive.” [13]

Not all agricultural pests are native animals. Rats—not to be confused with muskrats to which they are unrelated—have a long history of association with humans, and probably arrived on the prairies along with European settlers, and were known to occur in Manitoba by the 1920s. They carry disease-bearing fleas, undermine buildings and public works with their tunnels, and through their cosmopolitan tastes, destroy and contaminate a wide range of foodstuffs, being considered “a greater pest than gophers.” [14]

Even “man’s best friend”—the domestic dog— has incurred its master’s wrath when it disturbed the peace and ran at large, necessitating the building of municipal dog pounds, and the issuing of municipal dog tags to identify runaway curs. And woe help the mindless mutts that acquired a taste for harassing and killing sheep, and occasionally other livestock. Starting with the provincial Sheep Protection Act of 1917 and continuing through the 1930s, the UMM took the view that municipal responsibility for damages should only attach in cases where the dog’s owner could not be identified, that sheep found running at large deserved whatever they got, and that stray dogs caught in the act should be put down—no questions asked. [15]

Fido could redeem himself by chasing wildlife from master’s crops. It was well known that wild ducks, geese and cranes could consume large quantities of grain when they dropped into fields in vast numbers during their fall migration. However, there was an upside because, unlike most other agricultural pests, waterfowl were tasty. Generations of rural dwellers and urbanites alike made fall pilgrimages to the marshes and fields to shoot plump, south-bound birds, and this annual ritual became (and, in some areas, remains) a lucrative source of income for Rural Municipalities deluged with hunters. The UMM proposed in 1928 that the date of the fall duck season should be moved forward two weeks, to the first of September, to achieve the duel benefit of putting more birds in the larder and more profits in the farmer’s pocket. And a 1947 resolution called for “bona fide farmers [to] be granted permission by law to take any steps necessary to protect their grain crops from damage by wild ducks whether in or out of the shooting season.” The provincial government was not receptive because, five years later, another resolution called for “those who benefit from the abundance of game” to compensate farmers affected by losses from marauding ducks and deer. And, in 1978 and again in 1984, the UMM called on higher levels of government to develop long-term strategies for minimizing crop damage and compensating affected farmers. Oddly, in 1972, the UMM was against a provincial proposal that would have helped with the problem, when they passed a resolution opposed to shooting on Sundays, on the grounds this would double the number of hunters. (In fact, the number of hunters has been declining consistently since the 1970s.)

Source: Western Municipal News, February 1915, page 29.

During the 1920s and 1930s, a new conservation ethic was arising, founded on the view that protection of wildlife habitat was essential for sustainable populations, and that humans had to intercede to protect endangered spaces. In 1924, the UMM resolved that municipalities should be given the power to establish “Wild Game Bird Sanctuaries” up to eight square miles in their jurisdiction. In the late 1920s, UMM President Duncan McDonald lobbied actively to convert an obscure forest reserve in western Manitoba into Riding Mountain National Park, in 1930. But the eradication programs through much of the twentieth century had an inevitable impact of populations of the targeted species. Fox, which were perennially identified as problems by UMM resolutions—as recently as 1967—were so scarce by the late 1970s that the UMM resolved that:

Whereas the fox population has been decimated due to the heavy demand for its fur and the high price offered for the fox pelt; and whereas we are now faced with an overpopulation of rabbits, mice and gophers; and whereas rabbits, mice and gophers are causing heavy damage to crops and gardens; therefore be it resolved that the Union of Manitoba Municipalities request the Province of Manitoba to declare fox an endangered species and declare a moratorium on fox hunting in order to protect foxes and to give a chance to nature to increase the population of foxes, as they are the best control to reduce the rabbit, mice and gopher population. [16]

In southern Manitoba, the haunting calls of coyotes at dusk are becoming more common now as their populations are rebounding. The recovery is perhaps the result of declining fur prices and waning interest in trapping as a source of livelihood. The trend toward industrialized farming, where chickens and other prey animals are raised in large barns where they are less vulnerable to predators, means that farmers are less concerned about killing predators. Yet, negatives attitudes about predatory animals remain. Wildlife conservation organizations such as Manitoba’s Delta Waterfowl Foundation promote “predator control” as a means of stimulating wild duck and goose populations for the benefit of waterfowl hunters. And gophers remain a popular target. In 2002, the Saskatoon Wildlife Federation (SWF) instituted its controversial Ken Turcot Memorial Gopher Derby, named for a long-time SWF member who “lived to shoot gophers”and described as “the biggest killing contest in Canadian history”. [17] In 2005, Health Canada proposed to continue the use of strychnine for killing northern pocket gophers, skunks, pigeons, wolves, coyotes, and black bears. It also recommended “the use of strychnine to control Richardson’s, Columbian, Franklin and thirteen-lined ground squirrels … on an interim basis in consideration of the ongoing work by a national expert group to develop and promote a pest management strategy for the control of Richardson’s ground squirrel [and] the lack of practical alternatives at this time.” [18] The war on wildlife continues with no armistice in sight.

Portage wolf sanctuary. A municipal map of annual wolf bounties paid between 1907 and 1931 shows—surprisingly—that the highest bounties were paid by the RM of Portage la Prairie and adjoining municipalities of south-central Manitoba.
Source: Data obtained from Manitoba Legislative Library


This article is excerpted, in part, with permission of the Association of Manitoba Municipalities, from my 2008 book With One Voice: A History of Municipal Governance in Manitoba.

1. “The gopher pest in Manitoba,” Manitoba Department of Agriculture, Circular No. 117, February 1937. [Manitoba Legislative Library]

2. Western Municipal News [hereafter WMN], 1918, p. 155.

3. WMN, 1919, p. 236.

4. WMN, 1935, p. 264.

5. WMN, 1936, p. 227.

6. WMN, January 1936, S.A.R.M. advertisement.

7. WMN, 1932, p. 297.

8. WMN, 1935, p. 106.

9. UMM Resolutions, 1924, #23. [Archives of Manitoba, UMM Fonds]

10. “Awards in Gopher and Crow Extermination Competition, 1929.” Manitoba Department of Agriculture and Immigration, Circular No. 95, October 1929. [Manitoba Legislative Library]

11. UMM Resolutions, 1990, #45.

12. UMM Resolutions, 1905, #4.

13. WMN, 1925, p. 314.

14. WMN, 1928, p. 340.

15. UMM Resolutions, 1926 #9 and 1927 #20.

16. UMM Resolutions, 1978, #21.

17. “Saskatoon gopher derby may go into the hole,” Animal People, June 2002,; “Gopher hunt draws international fire,” Saskatoon Star Phoenix, 2 April 2002, page A1.

18. “Re-evaluation of Strychnine,” Proposed Acceptability for Continuing Registration PACR2005-08, Health Canada, Pest Management Regulatory Agency, September 2005, pdf/infonotes/InfoNote-Strychnine-e.pdf

Page revised: 15 February 2015

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