Berkeley squirrels are safe from extermination — for now


A Western Burrowing Owl and a ground squirrel at César Chávez Park. Photo: Penelope Hillemann

By April Rose Sommer

Much to the relief of wildlife lovers, the Berkeley City Council voted Tuesday night to delay its pilot program to exterminate ground squirrels at César Chávez Park.

The city had generated broad outcry earlier this year when it announced plans to trap and kill park squirrels as a means to address Regional Water Quality Control Board concerns that squirrel burrows might cause toxics underneath the park to leach into the bay.

But on Tuesday, the Council put the extermination plan on hold and directed the City Manager to report back in two months with a plan and a response to the many questions raised by citizens, councilmembers, and environmental and animal rights organizations, including Golden Gate Audubon.

Councilman Kriss Worthington led the efforts for a reconsideration of the extermination pilot program and Councilwoman Linda Maio was careful to stress that the pilot program would not go forward until the council had revisited the issue. Councilman Max Anderson waxed poetic about how the park used to be filled with raptors, the squirrels’ natural predators, and recommended that there be an effort to draw these birds back to the park, while Councilman Gordon Wozniak complained that there are too many squirrels.

The squirrel extermination scheme was crafted as a response to concerns by the Regional Water Quality Control Board that squirrel burrows could be allowing toxics to leach into the Bay. César Chávez Park is built on top of a landfill that was covered with layers of fill intended to “cap” the old dump’s solid and toxic waste. Although the bay waters surrounding the park have not tested positive for any leached materials, the Board did direct the city to address the potential risk from squirrel burrows.

A sign at Cesar Chavez Park. Photo: City of Berkeley

A sign at César Chávez Park. Photo: City of Berkeley

The Water Board was careful to distance itself from the city’s extermination plan, though, instead suggesting that enforcement of the no-feeding ordinance may be sufficient to address the large squirrel population. The Board recently issued a FAQ that clearly states “we are not ordering the City to kill the squirrels” and requested that the city supply further data on the burrows and methods of control.

Golden Gate Audubon’s East Bay Conservation Committee researched the issue, submitted a comment letter to the Berkeley City Council, and spoke at Tuesday’s Council meeting. GGAS called for collection of further data, strict enforcement of the city’s existing no-feed ordinance, vegetation modification to create habitat less desirable to squirrels, increased efforts to encourage natural predation, and consideration of squirrel contraceptives as alternatives to trap and kill. (Although there are signs at the park asking people not to feed the animals, the message is frequently ignored, and the birdseed and peanuts that are provided for the squirrels causes overpopulation.)

GGAS opposed the extermination plan as part of its commitment to protect California native wildlife. The squirrels form an essential part of the natural environment, serve as  an important food source for large raptors and snakes, and create burrows that are essential for Western Burrowing Owls that winter at César Chávez Park.

Continue reading on Golden Gate Birder, the website of the Golden Gate Audubon, where this article first appeared.

April Rose Sommer practices environmental law at her firm Sommer Public Interest Law, and advocates for birds and habitat protection on the GGAS Conservation Committee.  

Berkeley to kill squirrels, gophers to protect bay (02.19.14)
Western Burrowing Owls are back on the Berkeley Marina (01.06.14)
Can’t get enough of them: Berkeley’s burrowing owls (02.19.13)
Burrowing owls come out to preen at Berkeley Marina (02.11.13)
Burrowing owls and docents return to Berkeley Park (02.16.12)
How the predatory barn owl became Berkeley’s official bird (01.23.12)
Berkeley owl chick will soon branch out, says expert (04.2612)

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  • guest

    Instead of trapping or poisoning the squirrels they should fence off the area and let the junior members of the Chabot Gun Club use them for hunting practice.

  • Bruce_Mc

    Let the Redwood Bowman do the job instead. Archery is quieter and more sporting. Combine that with some kind of Renaissance Faire and it could be a money maker for the city.

  • Completely_Serious

    Lot of protection for all sorts of vermin in Berkeley.

  • saunie

    How long have humans and squirrel co-existed? STOP KILLING everything!

  • Woolsey

    The Water Board’s own Order (2010) indicates this is a well protected landfill. Phase I – 3ft to 5 ft thick soil, physical properties sufficient to impede water infiltration; Phase II – 7 ft to 39 ft, includes 2 ft continuous low permeability layer, Phase III & IV reconstructed with 2 to 15 ft soil foundation layer overlain by 1 – 2 ft of low permeabilit clay plus 1.5 to 10 ft vegetative layer (wow!). Phase V – completed with Board oversight, specifications unknown (?!), but presumably met or exceeded closure standards. The cover is graded specifically to facilitate runoff and mimimize infiltraton. Plus, the grounwater is monitoried to detect any potential problems. We live in a semi-arid region – chances of the animals causing a problem are remote – let ’em roam!
    On the other hand, squirrel jerky is mighty tasty!

  • batard

    Yeah, well in this case at least it’s a native species but the problem is the environment is out of whack. Remember, this was the landfill and now it’s a park. Unless you propose introducing natural predators for the ground squirrels (ahem, rattlesnakes primarily) then there’s no check on their population. Google ‘carrying capacity’.

    This is a problem of our own making, so there’s no ‘do nothing’ approach. It has to be managed, and that means killing some squirrels.

  • batard

    I think there’s enough squirrels for a tournament, rimfire on one team, archers on the other.

    Then let’s have a big “tastes like chicken” bbq and chili cook-off, along with workshops on making banjo heads and furry clothing items.

  • Bill N

    22 cal “Rat Shot” would do the trick!

  • guest

    The California ground squirrel’s natural predator is indeed the rattlesnake, which accounts for the bushy tails. Scientists have discovered that the squirrel tail is an evolved weapon against the snake:

    We doubt that park users would support introduction of the rattlesnake to deplete the squirrel population which threatens the protective cap of the landfill.
    The City never had an “extermination program” -a total eradication rather than a culling. The City puts down dogs and cats who do not get adopted, which suggests how to proceed. The City sponsors an adopt a rodent (squirrel or gopher) day and hires trappers. All the hundreds of animal lovers who emailed the City arrive with their shoe boxes, sign a waiver of liability in case they get scratched in the process, and take a squirrel or gopher home with them to be released in their backyards, adding to the natural habitat of many an organic garden. Oh joy. All those squirrels and gophers who do not get adopted get put down. The City then fills the burrows nearest the Bay as a preventive measure against leachate polluting the Bay, leaving some squirrels on the upland near the Owls to provide adequate holes. And then everybody can stop posturing about their love of animals and accept that the City kills rodents, as humans have done throughout the centuries since the rat was discovered to be a vector of the plague, just as we kill dogs and cats.

  • EBGuy

    Technology will save us.
    Coyote + invisible dog fencing = (un?)natural squirrel predation program

  • guest

    Do ground squirrels taste the same as tree squirrels? I know there are a lot of recipes and cooking instructions on YouTube for tree squirrels.

  • guest

    …and then we’d end up exactly where we are now in another few years. Oh joy.

  • humorzo

    Except don’t they carry or cause a brain prion disease? No cracks about them what does et them regular-like.

  • Bruce_Mc

    I’m thinking of something like going to a seafood restaurant and picking out which crab you want to eat. You could pick out a squirrel and then somebody would shoot it and cook it for you.

  • guest

    Those are probably fox squirrels, sciurus niger .. different from the indigenous ground squirrels that are the topic of the article. Fox squirrels are a non-native invasive species that will also populate to the point of carrying capacity, which means during lean times they will dig up and destroy everything they can to find food. In my yard they tear the bark off the broad leaf maple, which introduces rot and causes limbs to rot and fall. They also gnaw at the shingles on my house. On the plus side they scavenge for food that keeps the rat population down.

    It would be illegal, albeit effective, for you to use on of these:

  • guest

    Oh I forgot to mention, they are also edible.

  • wenofSF

    Put up owl boxes-this will attract owls who will in turn take care of the over population of the ground squirrels. A green answer to a problem.

  • Zo Spencer

    How is this any different than “Rats Safe From Extermination”? … It isn’t—unless you are talking Burrowing Owl food supply.