Features & Stories
THE WORKING SQUIRREL RANCH


Story and photos by Trudy Frisk

When a man has spent over one hundred dollars relocating squirrels, he begins to seriously consider his options.

The squirrel problem, like so many others, resulted from the best of intentions.  In this case, it came from feeding the birds.

Squirrel Storage Site
Squirrels, noticing the supply of sunflower seeds where they’d never been before, were amazed.  “For us?” they exclaimed, clasping their little paws in delight.  No amount of reasoning or explaining stopped them.  “Feathers good, fur bad. Two feet good, four feet bad.”, didn’t persuade them either. On they came, bringing their extended families with them.

The fellow who was feeding the birds (and squirrels) likes squirrels.  He didn’t mind them sharing with the birds, not really.  He did think, however, that the two resident squirrels ought to defend their interests with more vigor against the interlopers.

He also realized that squirrels have one feature birds lack; they chew.  Sunflower seeds, pine cones, mushrooms, wool blankets, socks, chair seats, wiring, are all one to a squirrel, though some items, of course, have more nutrition.

It was impossible to keep the squirrels out of the bird feeders.  Oh, sure, there are bird feeders advertised as “squirrel proof”. People who develop and sell them, for $40.00 each, have obviously never tested them. Or else they use very unimaginative squirrels.  Un-athletic squirrels. They never counted on the wild squirrel’s ability to jump.  These creatures go from tree to tree, after all.  To calculate the distance, take aim and leap to a ‘bird feeder’ was no problem.

  Keeping them out of the cabin or away from the furniture was hopeless. There were more squirrels every day.

 It was time for action.  Being a kind man, he decided to get a humane trap. After some experimentation, (‘peanut butter, shelled or unshelled peanuts?’), the right sort of bait was determined. The relocation project got under-way.

At first there was concern that succumbing to the bait and being trapped and moved might be traumatic to the squirrel. A local couple refuted that possibility.  They’d noticed an annoying squirrel at their house. Since they went for a kilometer long walk every night they decided to trap the squirrel, carry it to the end of their walk, and let it go. Their trap and release program went on for a while before they noticed that, no matter how often they took a squirrel along on their evening walk, they always had one at the house.  “You don’t suppose?’ he asked.  “Couldn’t be” she replied.  They had to make sure.  They put a small dab of paint on the next captured squirrel before carrying it away.  “That squirrel darn near beat us back to the house!”  We can only speculate on the squirrel’s opinion of the daily ritual.

Back to the major squirrel relocation.  Once the offender was in the trap, it was placed in the truck cab along with a week’s supply of sunflower seeds and driven to suitable habitat.  This meant a goodly stand of mature trees with cones to harvest, mushrooms to dry, a stream or creek and no competitor squirrels.  As his project fanned out through the valley, the driver had to go further and further to find good sites, eventually traveling as far away as ninety kilometers.  To date he has relocated twenty to thirty squirrels, (they became a fuzzy blur after number nineteen.) 

Of course there is always a vacancy, an open niche, in ecological terms.  Squirrels from adjoining counties, probably having heard the news on Facebook or Twitter, file in to fill the gaps.   Efforts to put spirit and spunk in the original inhabitants have failed.  They’re probably sulking over the foreign invasion.    

His neighbour on the adjoining property also has squirrel problems. In fact the Kindly Squirrel Relocator, who has to drive through the neighbour’s yard on his way to town, swears that, as he crests the top of the hill, he can see about forty squirrels forming a line in the gully, waiting for the starter’s pistol to race for her house.  She, too, began the squirrel relocation game, complete with starter kits of sunflower seeds to tide them over till they gathered their own cones.  If sunflower farmers wonder why demand is increasing, they need look no further.

Canadian squirrels are extremely tenacious. The Canadian temperament, no doubt; extremely stubborn and adaptable to almost any circumstance.  Some years ago Canadian squirrels were imported into Britain and set free.  The Colonials have been whipping the sissy Brit squirrels, paws down.  Chagrined Brits are attempting to exterminate the furry foreigners.  Annoyed Canadians have been heard muttering that before eradicating hard-working Commonwealth Sciuridae from the U.K., the British should take back all their pesky starlings from North America.  Two of my acquaintances recently returned from Britain report that, as soon as they acknowledged they were Canadian, the Brits harangued them about the havoc wreaked by Canadian squirrels on the loyal red squirrels of the U.K.  “Are they really having an effect?” I asked.  “They’re smokin’ ‘em!”  

Trudy Frisk at Squirrel Storage Site
Yes, squirrels are tough.  To make matters worse, they’re evolving.  Scientists have determined that, with climate change, two species of flying squirrels which, under ordinary circumstances, would never have met, have, since habitat is changing, not only gotten acquainted, but are interbreeding.  What will come of this?  Supersonic squirrels, zooming about the forest at warp speed?

The squirrel hot spot is home to flying squirrels as well as regular ones. In fact one day soon after the female neighbour moved back into the family log house, a flying squirrel made a precise landing on the counter, after launching from the kitchen rafters.            

She still has about twenty regular squirrels. It’s too late in the season to relocate them and expect them to gather cones.  The squirrels know winter’s coming and they need to store food.  Competition’s fierce. Squirrels yell and scold each other in the middle of the walkways. Arguments don’t stop when a human strides by. It’s not uncommon to see two or three squirrels on top of a picnic table engaged in fisticuffs. Napoleon, the senior cat, sleeping on an attached bench only opens one eye and returns to dozing in the sun. He’s seen it all and done it all and just hopes a defeated squirrel doesn’t topple on him ruining his nap.

Surely such intrepid creatures deserve recognition.  And, they’re getting it. In July 2009
Thompson Rivers University at Kamloops, B.C., held a five-day conference attended by sixty of the world’s top squirrel researchers.  The squirrel family includes marmots, ground-hogs, prairie dogs and chipmunks. But these scientists were in Kamloops to report on arboreal squirrels, the tree-dwellers. Topics included using squirrels to study eco-systems, including how they react to climate change and habitat destruction caused by the pine beetle, the study of squirrel evolution, conservation of endangered squirrel species, and protecting them from invading species.

Far from being ‘rats with bushy tails’ as one disgruntled squirrel relocator states, these
animals are the focus of researchers from India, Spain, Japan and Germany.  When asked, “Why do you study them? They’re so common!”  Researchers replied ,“That’s  exactly why. They’re visible and easy to study. They’re good subjects for trying to understand how ecological changes affect wildlife.”

So.  Seen in the proper light, squirrels aren’t an annoying expense; they’re an audacious opportunity.  ‘Squirrel ranching’ could become the next major attraction. No, not squirrels for stew, or squirrel chapeaux.  Squirrel tourism.

Imagine The Working Squirrel Ranch, combining the mystique of the West with eco-tourism, and scientific research.

It would be situated, of course, in the epicenter of squirrel activity.  No longer would the owners pursue their lonely vigils trapping and transferring squirrels.  Nope.  They’d have carefully selected groups of eco-tourists to help.  Monitoring, feeding, trapping, relocating, if necessary, all in a good cause, understanding climate change. They could take notes for scientific studies.  Photograph the animals. Add to data banks.  Carefully track the transferred squirrels. Calculate how many return and how far away they have to be taken before they resign themselves to settling in a new location.

Perhaps there could be education credits for mapping squirrel habitat, noting how many squirrels to a square hectare, preferred trees, etc.  Squirrels as part of a Master’s thesis? Don’t scoff.  Inventing new, improved methods of keeping squirrels out of houses, barns, cabins, and sofas would earn double credits. There might even be opportunities to participate in repatriation of the Wild Colonial Squirrels from the U.K. to Canada.  (Bring Our Squirrels Home!) 

Scientists might be enticed to oversee projects, giving The Working Squirrel Ranch owners an occasional day off. Scientists, of course, would pay less than tourists to participate.
 
The Working Squirrel Ranch would offer its paying guests an opportunity to experience the call of the wild. Driving an endangered pick-up truck, transporting a species of world-wide interest to different dwelling places, learning to read forestry road maps (“what does ‘deactivated’ mean?”), interpreting a GPS; it doesn’t get more outdoorsy than that.

Dirt on their boots, drinking from a creek, (upstream from the beaver lodge), sleeping in tents, (the better to hear prowling, nocturnal bears), gazing up at the starry heavens while strumming a guitar and crooning “Get along little Sciuridae”; you don’t get that in Las Vegas.

What’s in it for the owners of The Working Squirrel Ranch, aside from a sing-along beside the generator?  Money, of course.  Gallons of sunflower seeds and gas for the pickup aren’t found on trees.  This unique, wild, western, experience won’t be cheap. A true eco-tourist wouldn’t expect it. 

Imagine the overseas marketing potential. The Working Squirrel is situated in a broad mountain valley. Other wild animals, some larger than squirrels, some smaller, live there.
But there’s more.  Eco-guests could put on Stetsons and cowboy boots and ride horses. (Not while carrying squirrels, though). They could climb mountains.  They could golf.
“The Working Squirrel Ranch: As Wild As You Want It!”  

 Are there grants, or government funding?  What’s available?  The scientific community is chronically short of funds. No help there. Luckily, even in these dreary times, ‘tourism’ rings a booming gong.  Maybe a spin-off from the 2010?  ‘Skiing squirrels’ should be worth  consideration.

Agriculture?  No point dwelling on it; we all know how limited funds are for farming and ranching.  However, The Working Squirrel Ranch is located in a mixed economy area.
Logging and lumber production was a major activity.  Time to go for some of that federal ‘hardship’ money for small mill towns while there’s any left.

I’m not saying squirrels will ever replace cows or logs, but you have to go with what you’ve got.  And The Working Squirrel Ranch has got squirrels. Tune that guitar, Sally.


Other articles by Trudy Frisk

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