April 14, 2009 in City

Humane society, Limbaugh weigh in on exploding squirrels

By The Spokesman-Review
 
•Have a great idea on how to control the squirrel population at Finch Arboretum? Send it to the Spokane Parks and Recreation Department at www.spokanepoolsandplay.com. •One way you can help: don’t feed the squirrels, parks officials say.

A plan to detonate squirrels in a Spokane park has raised the ire of the local humane society and the glee of a national conservative talk radio icon.

After battling overpopulation for years in the Finch Arboretum, the Spokane Parks and Recreation Department is using a device called the Rodenator Pro to inject squirrel burrows with propane and oxygen, sparking an explosion that kills the critters and collapses the tunnel.

Neighbor calls to police about the explosions in the park prompted the department to announce Monday that employees are using the device, prompting a flood of complaints about a method park officials say is one of many they’ve tried over the years.

“We would love to have help on how to resolve this issue,” said Nancy Goodspeed, department spokeswoman. “Right now we’re doing the best we can with what we’ve got.”

In a letter to Spokane City Council members and parks department officials Tuesday, Spokane Humane Society Executive Director Dave Richardson called the “killing of native wildlife” a temporary, unethical and reactionary response to a problem that could be solved by limiting the animals’ food supply.

“Ground squirrels have the natural ability to control their own reproduction. They will only produce offspring if there is sufficient food, water and shelter,” Richardson wrote. “Humans continue to change the ecological balance and our clumsy attempts to manipulate the environment often produce catastrophic results for wildlife. We can resolve this issue with ground squirrels humanely.”

Radio host Rush Limbaugh mentioned the detonation plan on his show Tuesday, saying he wanted animal rights activists “to try this one on for size.”

But Limbaugh focused more on the name of the Finch Arboretum and said it was the first time he’d seen the word arboretum.

“The name for a park, is that what it is?” he asked.

Arboretums like the one on West Woodlawn Boulevard in west Spokane are more than parks – they’re places where trees are generally planted for conservation and educational purposes, part of the reason the squirrel burrows are causing such a problem at the 65-acre Finch Arboretum, according to the parks department.

Along with posing a hazard to pedestrians, the burrows allow the critters eat new tree roots, which can kill trees.

The Finch Arboretum has about 2,000 labeled ornamental trees and shrubs from 600 species, and 200 to 300 squirrels, parks officials said.

“I have no problem with sitting down and figuring out how else to do this,” said department Director Barry Russell. “The big overriding conversation is ‘something has to be done.’”

Richardson hopes to re-start an animal welfare committee to help the city of Spokane with such issues.

“We owe it to our elected officials to help them make the best decisions,” he said.

He learned of the plan through news reports Monday and said he had no idea the parks department had been battling squirrel overpopulation at the arboretum, something Russell called “an annual issue.”

“We didn’t take care of the issue well enough over the last couple years, and it just allowed them to multiply,” Russell said. “The coyotes just can’t keep up; there’s just so many of them.”

Past attempts to kill the squirrels have included the use of poisonous gas that seeps into the burrows, a method used in parks across the nation.

City officials in Santa Monica, Calif., for example, used gas to kill squirrels in a city park in 2006 but stopped after public criticism and opted the next year to inject the critters with vaccines to limit sexual development, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The Spokane Parks Department once lined burrows with sticks of Wrigley’s juicy fruit gum after hearing rumors that eating the gum would destroy the animals’ stomachs and kill them, Goodspeed said.

Russell said the explosions caused by the Rodenator “are the quickest way of the animal passing away.”

Spokane resident Don Sundahl said she and her friends were “appalled” to learn of the detonations.

“What kind of message are we giving to kids?” she asked. “It’s inhumane. They should trap them and release them.”

The department does that in parks like Riverfront, Goodspeed said, but the overpopulation problem in Finch is out of control.

“Every year we hire someone to trap some number of them,” she said. “But it’s just kind of gone crazy, and we’re trying to get a handle on it before it really gets out of control.”

Meghann M. Cuniff can be reached at (509) 459-5534 or at meghannc@spokesman.com.


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