A New Approach to Oregon’s Growing Rat Problem
The city of Eugene is testing an unconventional solution to a serious issue, with a ban on feeding a slew of wild animals.
Rats have made themselves very much at home in Oregon. With the rodent population on the rise, certain cities are responding with some aggressive control measures. This summer, following months of debate, the Eugene City Council acted to reduce the number of critters venturing into town by passing an ordinance to stop citizens who might “place, deposit, distribute, store or scatter food, garbage or any other attractant so as to constitute a lure, attraction, or enticement for wildlife.” The ban also prohibits the storage of food or garbage in any way that could inadvertently entice rats or other select wildlife species.
Spurred by calls about rodents scurrying in and out of local homes, as well as reports of turkeys and deer eating hedges and wreaking damage in yards, the city council passed the feeding ban July 16 with a 6–2 vote capping “a marathon” meeting, the local Register-Guard reported. The ban was modeled on an ordinance enacted in the Oregon city of Medford in 2016 as a way to target the city’s growing accumulation of waste. Violators (identified through citizen complaints) will be given 10 days to correct the situation; otherwise, they could face fines.
“We are overrun with turkeys,” one councilor, Chris Pryor, told the assembly. “Their numbers are growing out of control. The problem is not just going to go away through education.”
Indeed, wild turkeys are among the main targets of the ban. The scrappy game birds were introduced to Oregon by Fish and Wildlife in the 1960s. Today the turkeys get much of their food from bird feeders in town, which will not be regulated by the ordinance. “Bird feeding is such a longstanding tradition,” says Deb Jones, who launched the Rodent Action Team in the city’s Friendly neighborhood last year. “There would be a major backlash, an outcry in Eugene, if the city banned that one.”
Six other animals were also noted in the ban. They included a common urban pest, the raccoon, as well as the gardener’s nemesis, the deer—but also coyotes, bears, wolves, and cougars, all of which are occasional visitors to this part of Oregon. Noticeably absent were stray cats. While some cities have actually turned to cats as a method for controlling rat populations, biologists have found that cats far prefer to hunt mice; additionally, they have a detrimental impact on bird populations. Meanwhile, in Eugene, as discussed in an editorial in the Register-Guard by Ralph McDonald, a member of the city’s Sustainability Commission, that omission came at the request of the local “cat lobby”—people who feed feral cats so they can be spayed or neutered to help control their numbers.
Not all advocates of tighter rat control agree with the broad nature of the ban. “I was surprised the city council combined all of the animal issues,” says Jones, who believes the ordinance’s failure to directly address the unique behaviors of rats is problematic. While outdoor food sources contribute to a rat problem, she notes on her group’s website that food is not the rodents’ only draw. Unkempt yards with woodpiles or old furniture lying around provide rats with nesting sites. And point of access inside and outside the home, such as gaps around doors and windows or in kitchen cabinets and behind stoves, can also invite them in, so a feeding ban won’t be a comprehensive fix.
The city of Eugene has in fact used much of Jones’s educational material on its municipal website and in pamphlets to teach locals how to rat-proof trouble spots like chicken coops and compost receptacles. And like Jones, some city councilors did express concerns that the inclusion of the other animals would detract from the focus on rat prevention. Emily Semple and Betty Taylor, who voted against the measure, advocated for alternative rat-control methods, such as passing out free wooden traps to residents at city hubs like grocery stores or distributing rat birth control to the rodents at strategically placed feeding stations. (Other rat havens, including New York and Chicago—sometimes called “America’s rattiest city”—have tried this as well, and experts anticipate that they’ll see results in decreasing rodent numbers over four to five generations.)
Some wildlife experts point out that the predatory species with which we are increasingly sharing our turf—like coyotes—might even provide some benefits when it comes to pest control. After all, coyotes and wolves living near cities are known to mostly eat small rodents as well as some fruit, deer, and rabbits. In Chicago, the Cook County Urban Coyote Research Project has found that coyotes don’t waste time rummaging through the garbage as do a lot of other city critters. And by keeping stray cat numbers in check, coyotes are in part responsible for boosting migratory bird numbers in the area.
“Rats often do make up a large portion of a coyote’s overall diet,” says Zuriel van Belle, the director of the Urban Coyote Project in Portland, Oregon. That said, “We would never recommend feeding coyotes . . . People who are concerned about them should clear brush piles and food sources to keep rats—and so coyotes—away.”
As for encounters with people, coyotes tend to avoid us. “Human-coyote conflicts are rare, but when they do occur, they usually involve a coyote that has been habituated,” Van Belle adds.
McDonald says these predator-prey dynamics were sidelined in the July ordinance, which reflects a desire by city planners to help Eugene achieve a certain image—“one that doesn’t include roving turkeys and animals in it.” The ban, he says, gives city officials the power to eliminate what they don’t want to see. (As home to the popular University of Oregon Ducks football team, Eugene attracts lots of talent and out-of-towners from California.) But whatever the motive, McDonald, who has lived in the city for more than 40 years, doesn’t have much confidence that the ban will make a difference.
Putting aside critiques of the ordinance, everyone can agree that the rising numbers of Norway and black rats in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere pose a serious problem both in urban environments and in wild ones. In 2008 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, working in partnership with environmental groups, eradicated Norway rats on Hawadax Island (formerly Rat Island), part of the Aleutian Islands off Alaska. The flourishing rodent population was devouring the eggs and chicks of song sparrows, black oystercatchers, glaucous-winged gulls, rock sandpipers, red-faced cormorants, and other native ground-nesting birds. The devastating impacts to the bird population also rippled down the food chain—for example, causing populations of invertebrates such as plant-eating snails and limpets, once preyed on by the birds, to take over the island’s intertidal marine communities.
The invasive rat problem is a global one—with well-documented cases on the Pacific islands of Polynesia, Micronesia, and Melanesia, where rodents pose serious threats to local flora and fauna. Rat infestations can be particularly troubling for tropical locales, where high temperatures promote yearlong breeding cycles.
But the potent rodenticides used to eradicate rats from seabird islands are hardly suitable for widespread use in cities, as McDonald notes. Nor are they healthy solutions for use anyplace else—even on a place like Hawadax Island, where the poisons caused some serious collateral damage to nontarget species. (Among those rodenticide victims were some 320 glaucous-winged gulls, one of the native species expressly meant to benefit from the intervention there.) Unfortunately, many cities do resort to poisons, at the risk of accidental ingestion by both their human residents and their native wildlife (such as raptors), since an infestation of rats is also a serious threat to public health. For example, researchers who study New York’s rodent population have reported that the city’s rats on average carry more fleas per individual than they did in the 1920s, raising the chances that they might carry bacteria that cause bubonic plague. (Currently, such bacteria are believed to be confined to the western U.S.)
Brianna Beechler, an assistant professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Oregon State University, says there is reason to be wary of the diseases rats can carry, such as hantavirus. (“No one wants that,” she says, describing a disease that starts with fatigue, fever, and muscle aches in thighs, hips, and back in humans. It killed a woman in Bend, Oregon, in June.) And many people are familiar enough with the historical accounts of rat-driven plagues to be concerned.
The citizens of Eugene will soon see whether a wildlife-feeding ban is enough to curb some of these threats—or at least to make a dent in the populations of rodents scurrying around their yards and homes. They realize a zero-rat future is an unrealistic and practically impossible goal. As Jones notes on her Rat Action Team website, while we can make efforts to move toward “peaceful coexistence” with the unwelcome creatures who share our public and private spaces, “rats evolved with humans, and we will always have them.”
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