RANCHO VILASA TALES––DON’T POISON THE GROUND SQUIRRELS!

SANTA YNEZ VALLEY

Santa Ynez valley–home of Rancho Vilasa

Let’s talk about what matters . . .

I started out writing an amusing story about something that happened on the ranch the other day. Not everything I write has to be significant, I thought. But once I get started . . . It turned into a long amusing story. I cut it in half. And made it two stories. See Rancho Vilasa Tales––A Tale of Cockers & Coyotes for the cute half. It’s on its way.

What I write about below is a painful and significant story affecting everyone in the west.

The other day, I was riding my horse when I saw one of these:

COYOTE IN SANTA YNEZ VALLEY

The biggest, most athletic, made-to-survive-anything coyote I’ve ever seen was trotting across the field next door. In the west, male coyotes max out at about 37 pounds. Eastern males may weigh over 50, according to some. I don’t know what this dude weighed, but it was way more than my cocker spaniels, which happened to be with me as I rode.

“Wow,” I said, heading my horse closer so I could see our visitor better. You don’t see a coyote like that very often.

Many non-ranchers think that we ranchers would like to wipe out the entire coyote population. That is a prejudice! We at Rancho Vilasa LOVE coyotes. I wish we had more of them. I’m trying to convince my husband to get a Rat Terrier (or a pack of them). Rat Terriers are bred to seek and destroy vermin. The Rat Terrier is the New Coyote!

We need them, because we don’t have enough coyotes and natural predators.

Why do we need more predators? Look at the ground anywhere in the west. The rodent population is out of control. We’ve killed off their natural enemies and created a rodent wonderland on what’s left. Free food, drink, and housing, courtesy of the humans.

GROUND SQUIRRELS

Fun loving, family orientated ground squirrels chatting while waiting for lunch.

For instance, part of horses’ diet is oat hay. Oat hay is full of OATS! Stacked in the hay barn, the bales of oat hay provide a wonderful habitat for thousands of adorable field mice. When we feed the hay to the horses, big flakes of it lay in the fields. What the horse don’t eat, the ground squirrels do. Along with their families, offspring, and children of offspring. We also have water everywhere-–our pastures are vacation wonderlands for carefree rodents.

Every morning, I look across my fields, watching them ripple with the coursing backs of ground squirrels. How many to we have? I have no clue. They live in holes, creating underground cities that Stephen King would be hard pressed to imagine. They like to live near driveways and the road. Heat from the asphalt, I expect. Maybe they just like that crumbling feeling as the ground gives way. Maybe they like the screams of those who own the roads and paths when they get the repair bills.

I tried to find pictures on the Net depicting what ground squirrels have done to our place, but I couldn’t find any pictures that were bad enough. I was going to use photos of craters on the moon, but they didn’t capture the mined-out feeling. (I may be forced to go out and shoot some pictures. To do that, I’ll be forced to learn how to use our camera.)

This is the best I could do:

OVERVIEW OF THE PUJE CLIFF DWELLINGS, NEW MEXICO
Overview of the Puye Cliff Dwellings of New Mexico

CAVE OPENING AT THE PUYE CLIFF DWELLINGS
Cave opening at the Puye Dwellings.

CAVE DWELLINGS AT THE PUYE CLIFFS
Another cave opening at Puye.

Lay those cave mouths flat and you get a sense of the SIZE of the holes ground squirrels are making all over not just our ranch, but also our state. The situation is bad.

It’s worse if you’re riding a horse. My husband and I joke as we carefully pick our way across our property. We point at the holes. “Oh, this is a ground squirrel mansion. And that is a multi-family dwelling! And this monster,” a squirrel hole like a volcano crater, “that must be WalMart!”

Yes, ranch life is fun. Trying not to get your horse’s legs broken––or your own, when the horse falls on you. I often wonder how they made the old cowboy movies where they race willy-nilly across the fields on their horses.

Today, they’d get fifty feet and do a head over heels fall.

GROUND SQUIRREL IN ATTACK MODE
Ground Squirrel in attack mode.
Yes, they do think it’s funny. And they are not afraid.

How can we get rid of them? Should we poison our ground squirrels? Shoot them? Our subdivision briefly tried the “poison them” approach (against our family’s opposition) and it failed. Why? Too many ground squirrels and too much money to poison them.

Long before it was tried, my husband and I could see the futility of the poison route: If poison was set for the ground squirrels tearing up the roadways, the minute they died and cleared the area, their cousins from up on the hill would move down to the flat. “Oh, Marge. Look at this great condo Uncle Waldo left us!”

The supply of squirrels is infinite and self-renewing, as our homeowners’ association discovered. The company supplying the poison could not keep up with the little monsters, at least within the parameters of our contract.

GROUND SQUIRRELS AT THE DOOR TO THEIR HOME.

Notice the size of the whole the little critters occupy. Multiply that by a thousand . . . Now imagine heaps of dead squirrels. A lot of country living is really gross. It’s going to get grosser:

Aside from the fact that I knew poisoning wouldn’t work, I had many qualms about poison as a way to get rid of one’s neighbors. Spirituality is my main focus of writing. It didn’t seem too kind-hearted or spiritual to poison the creatures around me just because I didn’t approve of their life styles.

I mean, we don’t poison the hawks, and other cute or beautiful wild creatures, do we? The quail, the bobcats, snakes or other creatures, including those not so fun, like skunks? (Or do we poison them? We’ll see in a minute.)

I’m not even a Buddhist, but I could feel my Buddhist ancestors nixing the poison route.

Then I found out more about what the poison does. The poison used to kill ground squirrels is a blood thinner, coumadin, essentially. All those of you on coumadin know what happens if you rap your knuckles by mistake. Imagine a massive coumadin overdose over a five or more day span. This results in internal bleeding, turning your innards to jelly, and then killing you. Sound like a fun way to go?

WHAT POISONED SQUIRRELS DO TO THE REST OF NATURE

I had a feeling that poisoning unwanted creatures was a pretty rude and unfriendly way of getting rid of them. But I didn’t know the full ramifications until I talked to my neighbor, Trace Eubanks. I didn’t know what the poison did to the squirrel, and what the dead squirrels did to the world around them.

Trace Eubank’s family owns the Pepper Tree Ranch, site of the marvelous Pepper Tree Art Show. It’s western art at its finest. Try to see that show if you’re in Santa Ynez Valley when it’s on. It’s breathtaking.

Trace was into falconry as a young man. His interest in the birds of prey has evolved into rehabilitation and rescue. I’m going to find a link to the organization doing the raptor rehab in Santa Barbara County that Trace works with. Until then, here’s the short form of what Trace had to say:

Poisoning ground squirrels is a really bad idea. The squirrels do not “go down in their holes and die” as one of my other neighbors informed me. They get thirsty, come out of their holes seeking water, and croak.

That’s the beginning of the problem. A circling red tailed hawk sees a staggering squirrel and swoops down. Easy dinner. He snatches the rodent and flies off to feed his wife and kids.

Also contrary to popular belief, a coumadin-laced squirrel meat will kill hawks, owls, and all manner of scavengers, including Sugar Lips, your mother’s beloved poodle. It may take a few squirrels to do the job, but they will kill.

Trace Eubanks gave a presentation about this to a group of our neighbors. He brought some of the birds of prey he was rehabbing: the most magnificent and very much alive horned owls, smaller owls, and a couple of red tailed hawks. Their presence gave the demonstration added impact. Who could do anything that would kill one of those spectacular animals?

During Trace’s presentation, I sat next to a small animal veterinarian who assured me that she got maybe half a dozen very sick dogs every year––all poisoned by eating dead squirrels. By the time they show symptoms, they’re beyond help. She couldn’t save any of them. This terrified me. We have five dogs. I’ve seen them running around with dead squirrels in their mouths.

That isn’t the worst part. What was really upsetting was the fact that hawks and other birds of prey mate for life. So, if dad is killed by poison, mom waits around for him. For the rest of her life.

One dead bird means that all the offspring that might have come from that pair for their entire lifetimes will not exist. Period. And the offspring of those babies won’t exist, nor theirs, nor theirs. It’s a widening spiral which robs animals of their lives––and us of their beauty.

RED TAILED HAWK

I like seeing the hawks circling over my pastures. I like hearing their cries. I love picking up their feathers when they fall on the paths. I even like their high-altitude, screaming, turf wars, carried out over my arena.

One hawk dead by poison, and entire lineage wiped out.

That’s shocking. Tell that to your friends who want to poison the squirrels.

SO HOW TO GET RID OF THEM?

Shooting squirrels seemed more sporting to me, though I have scruples about killing anything. Turns out that shooting squirrels isn’t any more effective at getting rid of them than poison. Our semi-rural area is too developed for people to shoot much. (Might shoot the neighbors. Or their kids or horses.)

My friend Patti Sexton is a real rancher. She and her family once owned Stone Valley Ranch, a 15,000-acre sheep and cattle ranch up near Chico. That’s a real ranch. They owned it for a hundred or so years. Patti shoots, she rides, ropes, and is the best farrier for Peruvian Paso horses I know. (She’s also The Lamb Lady, producing lamb from animals who’ve had grass fed, hormone, anti-biotic free lives, which were as happy as Patti could make them from beginning to end.)

“We have guys who come out and shoot squirrels. They’ll get fifty squirrels a day. Doesn’t do anything. They’re right back,” Patti scoffed. “There’s nothing you can do.”

Surely there must be something? And what about all the mice, too?

NATURAL SOLUTIONS: ENCOURAGE NATURE

Nature has the balance set up pretty well.

CALIFORNIA KING SNAKE: MAGNIFICENT
CALIFORNIA KING SNAKE: Nature’s exquisite answer to mouse infestation.
Photo: Zoe Nathan

We have all sorts of beautiful snakes out here, constantly on rodent patrol. Perhaps the most beautiful is the California king snake. My daughter took the shot above on our property. We also have intricately marked, five foot long gopher snakes that glide into holes looking for a snack. Heavier, slower rattlers stay away, mostly. I saw one. What a powerful totem the rattle snake is! Phew.

We have California ferrets, raccoons, vultures, birds of prey. Even bears, bobcats, and mountain lions. The natural world provides us with lots of animals programmed for rodent control.

COYOTE. IF YOU COULD SEE HIS EYES . . .
Photo credit: Billie Cromwell-RetiredPGC-PGC Photo1L

When I see a coyote, I am happy. Can’t be enough of these creatures. However, I keep my dogs and cats inside at night and have secure perimeter fencing. Do not romanticize these animals: They are after a meal wherever they find it. Keep domestic animals safe! That’s your job.

HOW TO GET RID OF THE SQUIRRELS?

Well, I haven’t tried the Rat Terrier solution. If my husband relents on his anti-small dog stance and we get one (or more), I’ll post what happens.

Other than that, doesn’t seem to be a solution, other than living so that you don’t provide any food or water for them. If you’ve got horses or livestock, getting rid of the food supply is going to be hard.

Global warming may help: Nothing like being underwater to eliminate animals in burrows. The naturalist at Sedgwick Reserve near us hoped for exceptional rainfall, for the same reason. Drown them.

But if you’re at a high enough altitude to be above the water line, you’re on your own.

ENOUGH OF THIS DISMAL THINKING. I’M GOING TO GO RIDE MY HORSE. I WILL GET TO THE PART ABOUT THE COCKERS AND COYOTE . . . I PROMISE.

Sandy Nathan & Her Dogs
Sandy Nathan, National Award Winning Author of Stepping Off the Edge & Numenon

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