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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Scourge of squirrels: Gardener seeks balance in onslaught of tomato-craving rodents

By Rich Landers For The Spokesman-Review

It’s showdown time: The Almighty and his cutest creatures versus me and my tomatoes. Buckle up.

For decades, the Landers home has lived in harmony with suburban wildlife from chipmunks to moose. The landscaping on our half-acre lot was designed to be “mostly rough” with native plants and trees known to be hospitable to critters.

We don’t have “feeders” for birds or wildlife, rather we provide for them with appropriate vegetation and water.

Except for mice and the occasional den-seeking skunk trapped over the years, we’ve welcomed furry and feathered friends.

Two years ago, for the first time, I noticed that a few of the neighborhood tree squirrels were acquiring a taste for the precious tomatoes I grow in pots on our deck. At first, they ate just a few tomatoes here and there. No big deal.

I enjoy watching squirrel antics, and I happily sweep up the litter they leave after consuming seeds from our plentiful ponderosa pinecones.

Last year, squirrels took a little larger share of the tomato crop, but it was tolerable.

This year it was not. As my best tomato crop ripened in July, the squirrels apparently spread word that our deck was a free all-you-can-eat buffet.

“First shots fired!” one Facebook friend replied when I posted a photo of half-eaten Sungolds and Super Fantastics at the foot of a planter.

I consulted a friend who’s a certified Master Gardener. When I said fencing wasn’t a good option because of our plans to paint the house exterior this summer, The MG (as I call her in all her wisdom) offered me a livetrap.

“When it’s your tomatoes, everything’s on the table,” she said. She warned me that trapping wasn’t a panacea, but that it might give my plants some breathing room to produce.

I baited the trap with peanuts on my deck and soon two squirrels showed up. I watched through the window as they feasted on a few Sweet 100s before crawling down the plant, breaking a few branches, and romping around the trap. They sniffed and checked out the bait from the outside but did not go in.

Instead, they mated! Shamelessly made whoopee on my deck. Getting it on to fulfill their propensity for having two litters a year.

“No wonder squirrels like your tomatoes,” The MG replied to my text. “They’re apparently an aphrodisiac!

“Did I tell you that we trapped 15 squirrels before we got some temporary relief?”

Sensing a teaching moment, she sent another text. “You’re living the reality of all gardeners/farmers. It’s a dynamic process for production success – with active management of nuisance critters from aphids to large mammals, and invisible pathology threats of virus bacteria, mildew and environmental challenges – water, heat, cold wind.”

In a follow-up text, she said, “One thing I forgot to mention about the trap we gave you: It’s a skunk magnet. Good news is that we’re now experts at skunk removal. We can help.”

The MG noted that spending more time on the deck – reading, eating, repairing gear, tying flies – would deter the squirrels from raiding the plants.

“On the other hand, there’s an infinity of squirrels who wait for you to go fishing!”

The non-native eastern gray squirrel was introduced to the Northwest in the early 1900s, according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife website. Since then, they have been repeatedly relocated to parks, campuses, estates and residential areas to become the most common tree squirrels in urban areas.

They are both delightful and menacing in their home range of about a half a mile – 20 inches of sweetness and frenzy, half of which is a fluffy tail.

They raided eggs in two robin nests on our property this spring and devastated tomatoes of at least three other homes.

A neighbor said he didn’t even plant tomatoes this year after squirrels annihilated last year’s crop. Another friend reported an expensive ordeal in evicting squirrels that had found a way into his attic, nested and chewed wiring.

In my quest for advice, I posted my struggle on social media. Responses were quick and yet another reminder that Americans can’t agree on anything. For example:

•“We have plenty of squirrels around, never bothered our tomato plants.”

•“Once they get a taste, they are relentless. Our strawberry patch suffered the same fate. Totally cleaned us out. The perpetrators are still at large.”

•“I hope you are releasing the ones you catch.”

•“Don’t catch and release them. Transplanted gray squirrels have eliminated the native squirrels in our area.”

•“Glad you’re not shooting them.”

•“Kill them all. Here are my Top Five recipes for squirrel.”

•“My wife has all the neighborhood squirrels named and feeds them regularly.”

•“Hope you understand it’s a never-ending battle.”

Unlike the native and protected Western gray squirrel, the Eastern gray squirrel found in Spokane is unclassified and may be trapped or killed year-round as long as you have a small-game hunting license.

Although a special trapping permit is required for the use of some traps, no special permit is necessary for the use of livetraps, according to WDFW.

But there’s a catch. Without a special permit, it is illegal to transport and release a squirrel anywhere other than on the property where it was legally trapped.

My request for professional advice on dealing with squirrels and tomatoes was small potatoes to someone who has to deal with issues such as cattle-killing wolves, flood-causing beavers, food-conditioned bears and cougars that prowl school yards.

But Kathrine McCarty, the state’s area wildlife conflict specialist, offered some coaching.

Deterrence is the preferred alternative, she said. Fencing or draping the plants with plastic netting can work, although she acknowledged that squirrels are notorious for climbing, squeezing or chewing to get their way.

“If you have a neighbor who feeds squirrels, you’ll almost surely have trouble,” she said. “The department discourages feeding squirrels.”

She said it’s often difficult to get cooperation from people who insist on feeding wildlife. I must admit this gives me a thought about what to do if my livetrap incidentally catches a skunk.

Installing sheet-metal tree skirts that reduce a squirrel’s access to trees in your yard limits their options for feeding and escape and can make them a little more reluctant to be there.

A squirrel-chasing dog can be an effective deterrent if you have a fenced yard, since eastern gray squirrels are active only during the day.

McCarty confirmed that capturing the squirrels in a livetrap is legal if you have a small game hunting license. But relocation is not recommended even for people with a permit,” she said, noting the squirrel could die of starvation, present a threat to other wildlife or become a problem for another homeowner.

One option is to hire a licensed animal nuisance control operator. The much cheaper option is to do it yourself.

Everyone I consulted asked me what I was going to do with a live-trapped squirrel.

No one wanted to talk about what THEY do.

Since eastern gray squirrels are plentiful and not protected, there seems to be a tolerance for SSS mentality.

One WDFW staffer said bagging the trap and inserting a hose from a vehicle’s exhaust pipe might be a painless method of dispatching the pest.

A bullet to a trapped animal’s head tends to be preferred, McCarty said, because it’s quick.

But that’s not an option in residential areas and other no-shooting zones. And honestly, shooting an animal in a livetrap would be tricky to accomplish, destructive to the trap, not to mention messy and dangerous.

Old-time trappers preferred plunging the livetraps into water where the squirrel will drown in seconds with no bloody mess. Drowning is listed on the WDFW website as being inhumane. That’s debatable.

“Moderating the number of squirrels in an area is not a long-term solution, but you can be pretty happy with the results,” McCarty said. “Set traps close to your problem area – such as the deck, porch or garden – to trap the most confident squirrels. There’s a lot of variation in individual personalities. Trapping the ones contributing to your issue might get results.”

Indeed, after two months of effort in battling what was a scourge of Biblical proportions, there are eight fewer mouths to feed on my tomatoes. We got some to ripen on the few remaining stems that hadn’t been broken.

I smiled the other day as I watched a squirrel in my yard stripping a pine cone for seeds.

“Glad things are a little better, if only temporarily,” The MG texted. “But sorry about your garden. Do you want any zucchini?”