Novelty or nuisance?

Squirrel population booming in Craig; reactions mixed

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By JEREMY BROWNING

Daily Press writer

Mary McGilton loves to watch the squirrels that inhabit the trees around her house on Tucker Street.

But many Craig residents consider the bushy-tailed rodents a nuisance.

Squirrels chase each other around McGilton's yard, and up and down the trees. They sit on a stump beside the sidewalk and eat popcorn, breadcrumbs and peanuts she sets out for them.

They also chew their way into attics, cause power outages and raid bird feeders. One businessman has even capitalized on people's desire to be rid of the pesky animals.

A decade ago, there weren't any squirrels in Craig. Now, McGilton sees as many as eight or 10 squirrels on her property at once.

"We just get a kick out of watching them play," McGilton said. "It's amazing to see how far they can jump from tree to tree."

Across the street, the squirrels scurry across the top rail of a fence where Alisha Mogensen's golden retriever eyes them nervously.

"I don't mind them too much," Mogensen said. "It would probably be nice not to have so many around. They're all right, but they're everywhere."

Both women said the squirrels are a new phenomenon in Craig. And McGilton, a longtime resident of Tucker Street, said she's been noticing the squirrels for only about the past three years.

All of a sudden the tree-dwellers appeared, McGilton said.

"The only bad thing is they get on the wires and get electrocuted," McGilton said.

When the squirrels get on the wires, especially the wires near the transformers that are attached to about every other electrical pole in town, they cause blinks or complete outages in electrical service.

Vic Rose, a line superintendent for Yampa Valley Electric Association, has been paying close attention to the squirrels and the disruptions they cause.

"They've created quite a havoc around the town of Craig," Rose said.

Rose, too, said the squirrels are new.

The electric company has been heavily involved in dealing with squirrels for about five years, Rose said.

Rose estimates 60 or 70 squirrels have been electrocuted by crawling around the power equipment in town. YVEA has spent more than $100,000 retrofitting infrastructure to guard against the squirrels, Rose said.

Squirrels like to hang out on the tops of the transformers, which step down the voltage of the electricity from the transmission lines to the lines leading to residential areas.

But as the squirrels crawl around, they sometimes cause a short circuit between a line and a ground wire. It acts like a wrench bridging the terminals on a car battery. It either takes out a fuse or opens up a breaker, Rose said.

The interruption in power might be just an inconvenience for the average resident. At the hospital and other medical facilities, however, power disruptions can be more serious.

Rose said the company tried using devices that give the squirrels a nonlethal jolt of electricity in the hope that younger squirrels might catch on and avoid the power lines. Currently, YVEA outfits the transformers with covered conductors and plastic shields, Rose said.

Rose has been YVEA's line superintendent since 1982, and he said there weren't any squirrel problems until about six years ago.

"We're into it heavy now," Rose said.

Chuck Kistler owns Valley Varmints Unlimited, which specializes in wildlife damage control, helping people deal with skunks, raccoons, bats and squirrels, among other animals.

Last winter, Kistler got a call from a customer with a squirrel problem. Unfortunately, the homeowner was away, spending the winter in Arizona, when a squirrel found its way down the chimney and into the house, Kistler said. A housesitter contacted Kistler for help.

Getting in was easier than getting out, the rodent discovered. It tried to escape by gnawing on the mahogany trim around the windows. It left droppings throughout the house.

Kistler spent two days trying to catch the animal, which had taken up hiding in the dryer.

Nearby mountains are home to pine squirrels, Kistler said. But they're smaller and less bothersome than their cousins who inhabit the town. The squirrels seen in town are usually red or gray fox squirrels. The fox squirrels are two or three times bigger than the pine squirrels, and they're not native, Kistler said.

Like many people, Kistler has heard the rumor that a man transplanted the large squirrels to Craig either because he just liked watching them or because he wanted to settle a score with the City of Craig.

Kistler deals with squirrels in towns across the region, including Craig, Steamboat Springs, Hayden, and Oak Creek, where squirrels had gotten into a library.

The fox squirrels are native to hardwood forests, where they can feast on nuts and take shelter in broadleaf trees, Kistler said. No such sustenance exists in Northwest Colorado.

Valley Varmints' customers complain of a variety of damage caused by squirrels. Rodents have to chew on things to keep their teeth in check, and squirrels are no different. They gnaw the bark off of tree limbs, causing the branches to die and fall. Squirrels gnaw their way into attics. They raid bird nests, eating not only the eggs, but the fledglings, too, Kistler said.

Residents who feed birds get angry when squirrels steal all the birdseed, or chew into the feeder, spilling its contents. Some squirrels have even found their way to where the seeds are stored and chewed holes in the bags of birdseed.

But the invasion into the attics worries customers most, Kistler said, because the rodents like to chew on wires, which can be a fire hazard.

The problem in Craig and Steamboat seems to be central to the older neighborhoods, where the squirrels live in the mature trees. And outside the city limits, they're virtually nonexistent. Relocation efforts often fail because the squirrels can't find the friendly handouts that keep them fed in town.

At times, Kistler has been berated by neighbors who see him removing a squirrel from a customer's property. There seems to be no consensus among residents, Kistler said. At one house, the squirrels are adored and doted upon, while they're hated next door.

Jeremy Browning can be reached at 824-7031 or jbrowning@craigdailypress.com.

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