Heard Around the West




There’s nothing like a bunch of twitchy-tailed rodents to annoy some people. The squirrel population in a Santa Monica park has mushroomed to 1,000, even though the city has tried poison and gassing to knock down the numbers and reduce any risk of the animals spreading disease. But nothing slows the animals’ reproduction rate for long, and since 1998, the city has been cited five times by Los Angeles County for “squirrel overpopulation.” So this summer, squirrels in Palisades Park will be injected with contraceptives, thanks to a birth control program pioneered at Berkeley. Not everyone agrees there’s a problem: Catherine Rich, described by the Associated Press as an “animal activist,” pooh-poohs a health risk. “There is not a pressing threat of squirrels attacking people,” she said, “so I don’t know why the county is getting their panties in a bunch.”


A celebrity made the scene at a rural reservoir in western Colorado, dropping in by air and preening at all the attention, though at first she — later determined to be a he — was the one following people around like a groupie. The charismatic creature was a greater sandhill crane, a truly big bird at 4 feet tall. Orphaned at a young age after his parents and sibling were killed by a dog, the crane was rescued by a ranch hand and raised along with a flock of chickens in Nucla, a former uranium mill town. The crane flourished there for three years, but when his savior was stricken with cancer, the crane was dropped off at Fruitgrowers Reservoir during “Crane Days.” The hope was that the bird, dubbed Baby, would bond with its “fowl-mates.” Instead, the extrovert preferred hanging out with people who came to watch hundreds of migrating cranes gathered at the water. The Delta County Independent’s headline captured the all-too-familiar story of a celebrity’s descent: “Baby steals our hearts, then checks into rehab.” In this case, rehabilitation is happening at the Schneegas Wildlife Foundation in Silt, Colo. Given Baby’s need for human companionship and constant attention, the crane’s final destination might well be a zoo.


Mail carrier Debra Smith, in Parker, Colo., told Mother Earth News that she knows something about bird pals: “I’ve had crows escort my left front bumper, and one of my current ‘buddies’ almost caused a five-car pileup when he momentarily landed on my head to get my attention.” Smith carries dog food in her pocket for the crows, who now expect all mail carriers to come similarly equipped.


Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, has a lot to crow about if you appreciate desert sprawl. It grew by 100,000 people in the year that ended last July 1, making it the county with the biggest population increase in the nation. Since 2000, the county has added 700,000 people. Maricopa County, which covers 9,200 miles, is bigger than New Jersey, says the New York Times.


We don’t want to pick on the Interior Department, but it’s just so easy to do. A recent investigation by the department’s inspector general concluded that Julie A. MacDonald, deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, “yelled and cursed” at wildlife officials in an attempt to make them alter scientific field reports. The Washington Post says MacDonald in one case told field personnel to reduce the nesting range of the endangered Southwestern willow flycatcher from 2.1 miles to 1.8 miles. Her reason for the smaller range? It would exclude a ranch owned by her husband’s family. The inspector general also found that MacDonald arbitrarily tried to reduce the amount of river flow needed for endangered Kootenai River sturgeon. Her rationale? Less flow would help dam operators. MacDonald, whose background is in civil engineering and not wildlife, also leaked confidential information to organizations such as the California Farm Bureau Federation and the Pacific Legal Foundation. In sending the foundation a 147-page draft of the Interior Department’s critical habitat policies, she inquired: “Does that work for you?” Inspector General Earl Devaney referred the case to Interior’s senior officials for potential administrative action.


Handheld boat horns look small at about 4 and a half inches, but the racket they make is “ear-scalding.” So setting off even one of the aerosol-powered horns should make coyotes run for cover, right? That’s the hope of the city of Oxnard, north of Los Angeles, where coyotes have invaded neighborhoods and a golf course and killed some pets. Some 1,000 residents will be given the noisemakers and trained in their use, which sounds like a sensible idea: At 112 decibels, boat horns can be heard up to a half-mile away. One skeptic told the Ventura County Star that the horns will create “disturbing-the-peace problems everywhere.”

Betsy Marston is editor of Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado. Tips of Western oddities are always appreciated and often shared in the column, Heard around the West.

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