West Texas residents seeing cotton rat resurgence

By Tonya Garner: CNJ staff writer

An eruption of unwelcome and unsightly visitors has disrupted the lives of residents in Parmer County and other West Texas communities.

Rick Gilliland, USDA Wildlife Services representative, said favorable weather conditions have fueled a “population explosion” of the hispid cotton rat, an indigenous pest to west Texas and surrounding areas.

Caroline Reeve, Friona resident, said she and her husband Glen “live on the edge of town” on about an acre of land. She describes the area as “residential.”

Reeve laughingly recalled the first time the rodents were found on her property.

“My husband was in the barn moving a pallet,” Reeve said. “Two or three rats scattered and gave him a scare.”

According to Reeve, her husband used the weed-eater to dismember one of the offending rodents before purchasing rat traps and bait. Reeve said they trapped an average of three a day using strong-smelling cheese as bait.

“I don’t want them anywhere near my house,” Reeve said. “They’re nasty.” She described the rodents as “fat and fast.”

Ed Terry, co-owner of Veterinary Industries in Friona, said he lives about 20 miles south of town and is used to seeing rodents on his property. “I haven’t noticed any more than usual,” Terry said.

However, his customers who reside in the city limits have noticed an outbreak of the rodents. “Customers are saying the rats are all over town,” Terry said. “They are living in shrubs and bushes.” Friona residents are looking for any way to rid themselves of the creatures, said Terry. Rat traps and poison have been flying off the shelves at the veterinary store.

Gilliland said the humpbacked animals are strictly field-dwellers.

Reeve said she is unsure about that. “We found one in the garage,” Reeve said. “I certainly didn’t put it in there.”

The hispid cotton rat is described as a 10-inch long herbivore rodent covered with stiff hairs. The mammal’s usual habitats are moist fields, vegetable and melon fields and other grassy areas. They consume weeds and grasses and seem to have a preference for peanuts, peas and melons.

Parmer County Extension Agent Monti Vandiver said the last serious outbreak of the hispid cotton rat was in 1958 when the rodents seemed to appear from nowhere and caused serious crop damage.

According to Vandiver, no crop damage has been reported in relation to the current rat outbreak.

The number of rats people are seeing is largely due to the rapid reproduction cycle of the female cotton rat. One female is able to produce nine litters annually with a gestation period of 27 days. The young are weaned in 10 days and are able to breed in two months. The life expectancy of a cotton rat is approximately one year.

Gilliland said farmers are concerned because rodents are known disease carriers, and rat corpses are prevalent in the area. “The State Department of Health Services have tested the rats for diseases,” Gilliland said. “They concluded the hispid cotton rats are not carrying any diseases.”

Reeve said her neighbor has two cats who are killing the rats. “I bet she is burying about 15 a day,” Reeve said.

Although trapping is an option if the rat population is very low, Vandiver recommends mowing. “They will relocate if they don’t have ground cover,” Vandiver said.

Reeve said mowing seems to work. “We mowed everything and haven’t killed one in over a week.”