Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Squirrels, Gophers Unleash Landfill Toxins Into SF Bay; City Readies Extermination Plan

By Doug Oakley
Staff Writer
Bay Area News Group

BERKELEY -- It's curtains for you gofer. Same for you ground squirrel. 

Having run out of options, the city is planning to trap and terminate hundreds, if not thousands, of ground squirrels and western pocket gofers who have turned the shoreline of the 90-acre Cesar Chavez Park on the bay into what looks like a slice of Swiss cheese. 

There are holes and tunnels just about everywhere you look in the park that was converted from a landfill in 1991. 

But it's not just the holes that concern officials. They worry toxins lurking just under the surface of the former landfill on the bay are getting washed into the bay water, courtesy of the animals' digging. 

"Rain water goes into the holes and takes the landfill waste possibly into the bay," said city spokesman Matthai Chakko. "What goes into the bay is going to impact the animals in the bay." 

The city was notified by the Regional Water Quality Control Board in 2009 that it had a problem. Since then, the city tried installing raptor homes atop poles in hopes that birds of prey would come, nest and eat the squirrels . But that didn't work, Chakko said. The city also considered bringing in owls -- until staffers learned that owls hunt at night and squirrels are out in the day. 

"Part of the issue is that the squirrel population is higher than it should be," Chakko said. "People are giving them food, and there are signs out there telling them not to, but they aren't paying attention." 

That would be people like Bill Spint, of Berkeley, who feeds the squirrels one to two pounds of peanuts a day. 

"I love these little critters," Spint said. He whistled and a fat squirrel popped its head out of the rocks almost instantly and ran toward him. "The squirrels were here first, is the way I see it. Kind of like the Indians and the white folks. Nobody feeds these guys as much as I do. I used to bring out three or four bags of peanuts a day." 

To get rid of the animals, a city contractor that monitors methane gas emissions from the park has subcontracted with a firm called Animal Damage Control. That company plans to fence off the park in one-acre sections at a time, trap the animals and "abate" them. Chakko declined to lay out details of how the contractor will kill the animals. 

The contractor will post signs in the fenced off area that say "keep out -- habitat restoration in progress," and leave 24 baited traps that are small enough not to trap other animals. For gophers, the contractor will use traps underground in their tunnels. 

Spint said he'd be happy if the contractor trapped the animals and took them to another spot and let them go. 

"It would be nice if they did that, at least," Spint said. 

Reach Doug Oakley at 925-234-1699. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/douglasoakley

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