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Nuts: The saga of urban squirrel control

The Golden Gate National Recreational Area is a zone of coastal grassy hills and forested valleys a mile or two in depth that runs northward from the Golden Gate Bridge for some 30 miles.

It also is a bowshot away from my backdoor, which means that wild animals frequently come into the neighborhood.

Blacktail deer are entertaining, so long as the garden gate is secured.

Less amusing are raccoons and coyotes that sweep through at night like marauders.

They have lost all fear of humans. A coyote recently walked through a neighbor's open door and into the kitchen, where a small child was sitting in a high chair eating lunch.

If you feed your pets indoors, keep puppies inside at night and secure your garbage cans, the raccoons and coyotes go elsewhere.

But close encounters with another critter recently became so serious that I had to call a state game warden. The rampaging beast? A gray squirrel.

Before you say, "You've got to be kidding," let me tell you about what this peanut-loving, arboreal, bushy-tailed rodent has been up to.

The Western gray squirrel, (Sciurus griseus) is normally found in oak forests along the Pacific Coast.

The Latin genus name, Sciurus comes from "skia," meaning shadow, and "oura," meaning tail. The bushy tail is used as a sun shade, a warm covering in winter or as a balance when it jumps from tree to tree, as it does to get into the Monterey pine in my front yard.

This pine, the only one of size in our yard, has a trunk that is about 10 inches in diameter. It's maybe 50 feet high, or at least it used to be.

Over a year ago I found a large pine branch about an inch thick and three feet long on the ground under the tree. When I looked up the tree, I saw a large, sassy, gray squirrel barking at me.

Upon inspecting the bough, it was clear that he had chewed it off. I guessed that he was after the seeds in the cones on the branch. I was not happy with his dietary choice, but one branch is not too much to be upset about.

As time passed, more branches and chewed-up cones came down. In no time at all, the tip of virtually every major branch on the tree was chopped off, as well as those in the yards of neighbors.

In addition to severely pruning the trees, sap from the stumps of the chewed branches began dripping on cars. Something had to be done!

One neighbor gave me an open invitation to take out any squirrel that came into his yard. (I have become known as "the neighborhood hunter.")

The idea was tempting. However, we live in a suburban area and there are more attorneys and anti-hunters in Marin County than there are pesky squirrels, so I decided I had to deal with the squirrel by the book.

Now some of you are probably saying, "Just shoot it"; not so fast if you want to play by the rules. In California there is a "Safety Zone" of 150 yards around any home, where one cannot legally discharge a firearm, unless one is the property owner.

If the squirrel is on my yard I am the property owner, but other homes are within 150 yards. The thought of surveying the neighborhood to harvest a squirrel did not sit well.

Then there's the potential for a projectile to travel out of the yard and the lawsuit it would surely bring if it hit something.

I called the local game warden. She said that the law stipulates "no person shall harass, herd or drive any game or non-game bird, mammal or fur-bearing mammal," unless it is in season or you have a permit to go after the beast. The tree-squirrel season extends from mid-September until the last Sunday in January.

So, at the time, squirrels could be hunted in our area. But you can't legally hunt them because of the law about weapons.

The state can issue landowners depredation permits to "catch, drive away or kill a wild animal that is causing crop or property damage."

Gray squirrels are known to gnaw their way into attics, dig up tulip bulbs, mow down shrubbery and devour agricultural crops. Their normal diet is nuts, especially acorns, as well as buds, fruit, and seeds. But they also will eat bird eggs and even young birds. And they are known to chew on branches to eat the sap, which we now know only too well.

The game warden thought it was probably a bad year for acorns or that maybe oak wilt disease was cutting into acorn production.

An American Indian medicine man that I know wondered if it was an evil spirit.

Regardless why this squirrel had decided to attack the pine trees, the problem was how to stop him. The warden agreed the squirrel was causing considerable damage to the trees.

So, I was issued an official depredation permit, which is given out to landowners "to kill deer, bear, elk, wild pig, gray squirrel, beaver or mountain lion."

It turns out that the only legal way to remove the squirrel is with a live trap, as "steel-jawed leg-hold traps, padded or otherwise, are prohibited."

Live traps rent for $20 a week. But, legally, once you catch the culprit, you can't just drive into the park and let it go.

It's illegal to possess a live wild animal without a special permit. You have to call the Animal Control officer or the game warden, who comes and relocates the squirrel. Otherwise, you're responsible for its welfare.

I rented a trap and put out some peanut-butter bait. The squirrel would have no part of it. He sat up in the trees, chattering away and feasting on cones and pinesap. This made me suspicious that it may indeed be an evil spirit.

My Scottish ancestry wouldn't let me spend another $20 for another week trying to live-trap it.

Then a neighbor offered to let his dog out when anyone spotted the squirrel. After setting up a neighborhood squirrel watch, we had several days of heated emotional exchanges between dog and squirrel. Finally, the pesky rodent moved down the hill to a grove of pines in a nearby park.

A squirrel carcass on Highway 1 caused the neighbors to cheer.

All was quiet for a while. But since Christmas, with the rain and colder weather, Attila the squirrel has returned.

Ugh!

Fortunately a neighbor has installed a bird feeder, which the squirrel has decided is better table fare than my tree for the time being.

This story may seem like a politically correct joke, but an increasingly important wildlife problem is the overpopulation of animals that have lost all fear of man for the first time in thousands of years.

Increased Lyme disease, rabies, avian cholera and even attacks are growing threats.

To illustrate how bad things can get, recently a Marin County homeowner live-trapped a skunk and subsequently called an animal control officer to remove the animal.

Two animal-rights activists showed up to protest and a scuffle broke out, during which time the activist wrestled the animal control officer's handgun away from him. The activist was arrested, jailed and has since been charged with a misdemeanor.

The skunk was euthanized at the order of the state Department of Fish and Game.

Too bad someone hasn't invented a way to snare such problem wild critters with legal red tape.

James Swan who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.