Critters making themselves at home

CNJ staff photo: Liliana Castillo Ground squirrels and the holes they call home are prevalent at Greene Acres Park.

By Sharna Johnson: CNJ staff writer

Using all three dimensions of space, fluffy tails disappear into the ground and a curious nose pokes up through another hole only a few feet away followed by a flurry of fur and feet heading towards a picnic table.

Ground squirrels are on the move at Greene Acres Park.

This year the population of ground squirrels at the park has reached higher numbers than normal.

And officials worry it’s just a matter of time before the now Swiss-cheese-like turf starts twisting the ankles of human visitors.

“We don’t keep count of them, I just know there’s more than needs to be there,” said Neil Lambert, a supervisor with Clovis’ Parks and Recreation Department.

“The holes are a problem, the ground squirrels themselves are not.”

Lambert, who has been on the job 10 years, said ground squirrels are always present at the park but some years there are more than others.

This year, the holes made by the chipmunk-sized rodents have pockmarked the park’s landscape, he said.

“People step in the holes and sprain their ankles and dogs chase them and dig (bigger) holes. They don’t have much luck catching them but they chase them.”

Visitors feeding the creatures may compound the problem, he said as the squirrels begin to lose their fear of humans.

Such a comfort level could backfire and result in bites, he said, if they come to expect humans will feed them.

“They get over their fear of humans and then they become kind of aggressive,” he said. “They know they’re a lot quicker than you are.”

Public Health Veterinarian with Department of Health Paul Ettestad said wild animal populations typically increase in places where food resources are plentiful.

In a lake environment where visitors are picnicking, feeding ducks and plants and trees are thriving, the ground squirrels have likely found their perfect home.

“It’s about food resources, so either you have trees there … or your having a lot of people feeding (and) I’m sure they’re out there at night getting the pickings (left over from the ducks),” he said.

Curry County has been free of plague, a disease associated with fleas that bite rodents, thus far, and ground squirrels have not been linked to the disease, Ettestad said.

But he said it is still prudent to avoid animals that have the potential to be carriers.

Human interference with wildlife increases problems of food dependency and higher risk of bites, he said.

“People should try to teach their kids to be respectful of all wildlife and not to feed them,” he said.

But the park isn’t the only place in Clovis that ground squirrels are calling home.

Maintenance Supervisor Jimmy Dominguez said the critters have long been a nuisance at the Clovis Municipal Golf Course.

Every year, he said they pepper the course with holes and threaten underground irrigation equipment.

“They dig holes all over the place and they’re troublesome,” he said.

“Seems like there’s more this year. They spread out real quick every year. They’re just wild out here.”

Last week, Dominguez said he accepted the offer of a team of men from Lubbock who capture ground squirrels and sell them as pets overseas.

The men reported capturing 180 ground squirrels in one day using a water-flushing method, he said.

“And there’s still some left. I’ve seen them running around out there,” Dominguez said.