skunk-in-the-forest NPS cco public domain.jpg

Woodland skunk

Imagine my surprise, one August morning, to find in the live trap I’d set for the squirrel living under our portal, not Mrs. Squirrel but Mr. Skunk. A few desperate phone calls and a trip to the hardware store later, there I was, draped in a painter’s plastic drop cloth, like the ghost of Christmas past, creeping up behind the trap on what I was assured was a nearsighted animal who would simply walk out of the trap and go its own way if I could get the door open without alarming the creature.

Since that morning I have learned my well-intentioned effort to relocate the squirrel was misguided. What is widely thought to be a humane solution to the problem of nuisance animals turns out to be a very poor choice indeed. WildCare, an organization based in San Rafael, California, published a newsletter article titled “The Myth of Humane Relocation,” which gives a list of problems associated with the release of nuisance animals into the wild. It ends with the comment that “in many states, it’s simply illegal.”

Defined as the transportation and release of wild animals from one location to another, translocation has long been a topic of interest to wildlife ecologists. A 1998 paper by a working group led by Scott Craven provides evidence-based arguments against translocation. Briefly summarized, the negative effects of translocation include:

1. stress to the captured animal;

2. difficulty locating food and shelter at the release site;

3. aggression from the same species of animals at the release site;

4. unsuitable habitat at the release site;

5. failure to adapt, resulting in wandering and exposure to highways and other hazards; and

6. danger that released animal may be harboring an infectious disease.

And seasonally, there’s the risk of orphaning young animals unable to care for themselves.

Item 6 is a major concern to ecologists. Rabbits, skunks, squirrels, raccoons, and rodents may be carriers of a number of diseases. Rabies can be present in all these species; tularemia is possible in rabbits and occasionally skunks, squirrels, chipmunks, woodrats, prairie dogs, and mice. Racoons shed bacterial infection including Weil’s disease (leptospirosis) and roundworm (Baylisascaris procyonis) in urine and feces, especially problematic for children and pets exposed to the racoon’s latrine.

Nick Forman of New Mexico Department of Game and Fish explained to me that there are occasions when his organization will relocate a problem animal, but only after careful evaluation by professionals of the risks and costs involved.

Dr. Sam Smallidge, extension wildlife specialist at New Mexico State University, told me “[translocation is] not appropriate as a general management approach for problem wildlife.” NMSU’s Cooperative Extension Service guide L-214, a recently updated publication specific to skunks, states definitively, “live-trapped skunks should not be translocated because of the possibility of spreading rabies and other diseases.” These animals are particularly problematic in close quarters but contribute much to the ecosystems they inhabit.

Integrated pest management practices always start with prevention. Don’t invite the animals in. If they do settle where they are unwelcome, make the habitat unappealing and deploy exclusion measures. This approach is well documented in Cooperative Extension Service materials. Guide L-214 is specific to skunks, guide L-210 to rabbits, guide L-209 to rodents, and guide L-201 to prairie dogs.

My incident with the skunk ended well for all. The skunk hurried off not much worse for having spent a few hours in captivity, apparently oblivious to the bizarre figure behind the trap. And I have another “silly me” tale to tell.

Pam Wolfe holds a master's degree in applied mathematics and worked as a biostatistical consultant to researchers at the Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora, Colorado, until her retirement in 2012. She is a graduate of the Denver Botanic Gardens Botanical Illustration program, an Extension Master Gardener, and a Santa Fe Native Plants Project team member.

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