The Pinnacle – Hollister, San Benito

Advisors says ‘no’ to trappers
Federal USDA wildlife trappers may not get past subcommittee

July 23, 2006
Kate Woods, Staff Writer

Wildlife advocates won a preliminary victory last week when Santa Clara’s five-member Animal Advisory Committee voted unanimously against hiring federal trappers to obliterate “nuisance wildlife,” including rodent-loving coyotes.

The committee will make a report for the HEWLET commission, consisting of two supervisors who, on Aug. 17, could ultimately decide whether or not to use the USDA Wildlife Services in the county. If the vote is split the decision will go to the entire five-member board of supervisors.

Currently, Santa Clara’s Vector Control is in charge of obliterating what’s called “nuisance wildlife” from the region. That can include skunks or opossums that take residence under a house or a lone coyote whose habitat is so encroached by development that it seeks food sources closer to suburban areas.

“If the USDA comes into this county, more animals will be killed,” said Mary Paglieri, head of the San Mateo-based Little Blue Society, an organization that works to resolve animal-human conflicts throughout Northern California.

Officials of Vector Control want to bring in a controversial trapping program offered by the USDA’s Wildlife Services, which involves inhumane methods of killing wildlife. The trappers use painful neck snare traps to kill coyotes, a steel noose that slowly strangles the canines and can take days to kill. But neck snare trapping is indiscriminate because it targets unintended wildlife, such as deer, badgers and endangered San Joaquin kit foxes, among others, which come across the traps.

In their quest to eradicate coyotes, the federal trappers also use carbon dioxide cartridges which they throw into coyote family dens to smoke out the animals, and use clubs to pummel coyote pups to death – a method they call “denning.” The program costs all county taxpayers $70,000 a year.

At the meeting before the Santa Clara Animal Advisory Committee last week, representatives from USDA Wildlife Services trapping program gave their pitch, saying they would concentrate on urban wildlife, such as eliminating birds from the airport. Oddly, they claimed their role was to protect wildlife and that they would target only “nuisance wildlife.”

“That must be quite a talent to target only nuisance species with those neck snare traps,” Paglieri said ruefully.

Paglieri also made a presentation, imploring the committee to decline the USDA services and to use more educational, non-lethal methods of controlling nuisance wildlife. Her nonprofit group works with sheep and cattle ranchers, farmers and other residents who have encountered repeated problems with wildlife, and has succeeded where offensive, lethal methods have failed.

“There are so many wonderful devices people can use to accomplish this, depending on each situation, what food sources are present and other factors,” she added.

Paglieri is urging Santa Clara officials to allow Animal Control Services to handle euthanizing wildlife, but Vector Control’s Greg Van Wassenhove told the committee that if the county doesn’t hire the trappers, his agency – which oversees Animal Control — would no longer deal with any animal nuisance problems. He said his Animal Control officers would be in danger of the wildlife.

It’s an idea that Paglieri’s group finds appealing but not practical.

“So he was making a threat,” Paglieri said. “I contacted animal control in San Francisco, and they are offering to provide training to Santa Clara’s Animal Control. All the resources are there.”

Also present at the meeting was Camilla Fox, director of the nationwide Animal Protection Institute based in Sacramento. Fox also talked of more humane non-lethal methods for discouraging nuisance wildlife and coyotes.

Some ranchers claim coyotes attack their stock, especially weaker, sick or smaller animals such as calves. But other ranchers say coyote attacks are uncommon, and that they have had more problems with the booming population of ground squirrels that has exploded onto their pastures in the wake of attempts to kill off their main predators – coyotes’ favorite food are rabbits, rats, squirrels and other rodents. Ground squirrels eat pasture grasses and make burrows in the ground that can trip stock and cause injury.

In neighboring San Benito County, USDA trappers plied their trade for years until 2001, when public pressure forced the board of supervisors to end the agreement. But according to SBC Agricultural Commissioner Paul Matulich, a group of ranchers hired the trappers on their own for several years. The result has been an unchecked rodent population out of control.

“We’ve been selling ground squirrel bait faster than we can keep it in stock,” Matulich said.

The squirrel poison the county sells to ranchers is an anti-blood coagulant. When squirrels eat it, it takes weeks for them to die. Biologists say it can cause secondary poisonings to predators that eat the tainted squirrels that have yet to die. Recently, 11 California condors from the Pinnacles National Monument were found to have elevated levels of lead poisoning in their blood after they feasted on a hillside of lead-shot squirrels.

The nearly extinct birds also dined on dead squirrels in a nearby pasture that was peppered with county squirrel bait traps, and the birds had to be given painful Vitamin D shots to counteract the squirrel poisoning.

Paglieri said there are better ways to rid an area of ground squirrels. Aside from leaving coyotes alone, ranchers can use ultrasound devices – spikes that emit annoying noise in the ground – and smelly repellant that the rodents also avoid. To keep coyotes away, simply changing the scenery can help. Parking a pickup truck at different places on the property can unnerve the canines, she said.

“Coyotes are extremely sensitive to their surroundings,” she said.
Matulich dismisses the idea that coyotes are keystone predators that keep rodent populations down.

“There are plenty of coyotes up there (in south county) and they aren’t keeping the squirrel population down,” Matulich said. “That’s because they can’t catch them. They have to chase them down and grab them. Coyotes don’t take enough of them to make a difference.”
Wildlife experts disagree.

“Coyotes are omnivores,” said Janet Alexander, certified wildlife rehabilitator and director of the Wildlife Center of Silicon Valley. “They are predators and as such prefer small rodents, and that includes ground squirrels. It is the preferred part of their diet. And when you trap and kill these animals, your going to see a huge increase in the preyed species. They need to look at the whole big picture.”

Alexander is a member of the county’s Animal Advisory Committee but she recused herself from last week’s vote on the USDA trapping decision. Like Little Blue Society, her organization also plans to put together an alternative proposal for dealing with wildlife to the board of supervisors.

Ranchers say last year the rabbit population exploded as well. This year, an overflowing ground squirrel population matched the rabbit swarms.

“It’s been real bad this year,” said Sue Borba of the Borba Rodeo Ranch in the Griswold Pass, south of Panoche Valley. “I find rats and squirrels dead in my water buckets every day. And they eat everything.” As she talked, seven rabbits scurried from her dirt driveway into nearby chaparral.

Borba said plants she brings home, such as jasmine and tomatoes don’t last a day before getting stripped by squirrels, rabbits and rodents.

Matulich said that last year the group of ranchers who hired the federal trappers opted out of buying their services.

“They gave it up last year because of the cost,” Matulich said. “They didn’t want to pay the $70,000.”

He also said that as of 2006, he has had no complaints of coyotes killing stock.

Supervisors Don Gage and Pete McHugh, the subcommittee that deals in wildlife problems and health issues, will consider the recommendations of the Animal Advisory Committee on Aug. 17 in the board chambers on 70 West Hedding St. in San Jose. The meeting starts at 10 a.m. If the vote whether to use Wildlife Services trappers is split, the issue will go to the full board.