Nature’s little paratroopers have joined the long line of problem animals at Glacier National Park.
Flying squirrels, some of the shyest animals in the park, have discovered that humans are a ticket on the gravy train.
The nocturnal rodents have learned to chew through hanging food bags at the foot of Elizabeth Lake, spoiling the breakfasts of hikers and frustrating the efforts of rangers to keep human food and wild animals separate.
“No one has had their food cache totally destroyed. It’s more of a nuisance,” said Roger Semler, Glacier’s wilderness manager.
Besides larcenous flying squirrels, rangers are trying to foil deer that steal T-shirts at Hole-in-the-Wall.
And outside the park, state wardens moved a black bear that had been stealing food right from picnic tables near Hungry Horse Reservoir.
Flying squirrels are nocturnal relatives of regular tree squirrels. Large flaps of skin along their sides serve as wings. While they don’t really fly, they can sail great distances from tree to tree.
At Elizabeth Lake, hikers are required to suspend their food from a cable 10 feet above the ground - high enough so a grizzly bear can’t reach it.
But it’s no problem for a flying squirrel to drop in and chew through a plastic bag for an easy meal. They are particularly fond of granola and oatmeal.
Semler is designing a mesh cage for the Elizabeth Lake food cache.
Meanwhile, mule deer at Hole-in-the-Wall are grabbing T-shirts, chewing them up and spitting them out.
Deer are after salt, Semler says. A larger problem than sweat is urine. There is a urinal at Hole-in-the-Wall, but at night, hikers tend to tinkle near their tents.
Deer come to those spots and paw up the ground to lick the minerals. Rangers have spent many hours and dollars reseeding the delicate tundra at Hole-in-the-Wall, only to have salt-seeking deer rip it up.
Elsewhere in the park, mountain goats seek antifreeze at Logan Pass. Bighorn sheep mooch shamelessly at Many Glacier.
At almost every likely lunch spot on any busy trail, ground squirrels and marmots panhandle. And park visitors are often happy to oblige, in spite of signs warning against feeding animals.
Over and over, rangers warn visitors that feeding wildlife is illegal - that it’s bad for wildlife and risky for people. Occasionally, spoiled animals must be destroyed.
“It’s not getting a whole lot better, except maybe with bears and the larger wildlife,” Semler said. “I see it everywhere I go, every time I go out. The frustration level for rangers, seeing it so often, is pretty high.”
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