Ground squirrels aren’t so harmless
Vail, CO Colorado
AVON, Colorado ” On any given summer day, you can easily find a dozen Richardson ground squirrels scurrying from burrow to burrow in Nottingham Park in Avon.
After a while, you sort of become attached to the little critters. Carrie Robinson and her three-year-old daughter Hannah enjoy watching them from a park bench.
“She says they’re cute,” Robinson said. “She gets excited when she sees one.”
The problem is that they’re considered a nuisance and a public health and safety risk by the town. They’re known to spread disease by carrying ticks and fleas, and also damage park land and the Nottingham Lake dam.
Every once in a while, when too many squirrels are around, a man walks around filling their characteristic burrows with poisonous gas, depriving the animals of oxygen and killing them.
It’s a sight that doesn’t set well with many animal lovers, who don’t see the need to kill the animals and see it as inhumane or senseless. It’s a debate not just seen in Avon, but anywhere where property owners or town governments see the need to whittle down squirrel populations, or any other “nuisance” animal, says Randy Hampton, a spokesman for the Colorado Division of Wildlife.
“I don’t like it at all,” Robinson said. “I really don’t know why they have to do that.”
David Winneger, who jogs through Nottingham Park a couple times a weeks, said killing the squirrels seems “barbaric” to him.
“That’s pretty crummy,” Winneger said. “This is a park, and I expect to see squirrels here.”
Meanwhile, town officials, see it as an unpleasant but necessary task.
“If not controlled, these rodents can be detrimental to the patrons of our parks, the lake’s dam structure, playing fields, and open spaces,” says Rob Janusz, parks superintendent. “We do not enjoy the task of trying to control these squirrels, but assume this responsibility for the health and welfare of our residents.”
When ground squirrels reproduce, they really reproduce. Their gestation period is only 23 to 31 days long, and six to eight young pop out at a time. Their numbers can quickly grow.
Also, since so many ground squirrels are living in urban environments, pushed into parks by development, there’s nothing around to eat them.
“Populations are typically kept in check by natural predators, but we don’t see that anymore in urban populations,” Hampton said. “The coyotes and other predators are gone out of an area because there are so many people there.”
Ground squirrels can also be a problem when they encounter pets like dogs and cats, says Ray Merry, environmental health director for Eagle County.
“Cat owners and dog owners should definitely be aware of what their animals are getting into,” Merry said. “Dogs like to chase ground squirrels and get to them in their burrows. You have to make sure your cat doesn’t drag a ground squirrel back into the garage then go snuggle up with the children.”
So, if a town is removing squirrels because of a safety and public health problem, it wouldn’t be in any violation of state wildlife statutes, Hampton said.
In Avon’s case, controlling squirrel populations is actually required around Nottingham Park by the Inspector General’s office.
The State of Colorado Engineers Department inspects the Nottingham Lake dam annually and looks for burrowing animals near the dam. The damage caused by the ground squirrels harms the structural integrity of the dam, and could lead to dam failure, the town says.
Private property owners in Avon are also required by law to control the population of these squirrels so that there’s no more than one burrow per 900 square feet.
Other people don’t seem so bothered by killing ground squirrels, especially if it’s for public health reasons. Kim Rotheburg, who walks her dog daily through Nottingham Park, said the squirrels don’t really bother her, but she’d would hate to see her dog kill one some time and bring some disease back to the house.
Justin Golds said he plays soccer in Nottingham Park with friends, and when you’re running around, you sometime don’t notice the holes the squirrels create.
Carly Smithson said killing the squirrels doesn’t bother her too much, as long as it’s done in a humane way.
Staff Writer Matt Terrell can be reached at 970-748-2955 or firstname.lastname@example.org.