"We rely on samples brought in by rangers and wildlife rehab groups, but we don't take our own samples, so just because we don't see something doesn't mean it doesn't exist out there. Our primary function is infectious/contagious diseases like rabies and salmonella. As far as the tree squirrels, I just remember the die-off in Alpine, and we did determine it was an infection of pasteurella. But I don't recall anything about other areas of the county."
Clint Powell, a Julian naturalist, seems to know more about the tree squirrel population than anyone. "In 1995, we started noticing a terrible decline in the species. They had an infection where they would drop to the ground and get hit by cars -- a very abnormal condition. Many people took the dead western gray squirrels to Vector Control or the county veterinarian. A lot of the reports said it was stress. Now, what would stress a western gray squirrel? I was told that what they died of was a bacteria that's common to domestic rabbits. The necropsies said that it was a disease called 'snuffles,' which is common for domestic rabbits and highly contagious among western gray squirrels. Interestingly, it doesn't affect the ground squirrel or the chipmunk, just the western gray squirrel, and that squirrel is the signature animal of the mountains. People here put out feeders specifically for the western gray squirrels instead of bird feeders. They'll put peanuts in them, because that's what the squirrels like. In this county, they're not considered a game mammal, so the Fish and Game people don't take any statistics on them. I've just heard on the phone that they are increasing. We're seeing babies, specifically at Lake Cuyamaca, so they are coming back. Back in 1962 or '63, they were just about wiped out and came back then too."
Pasteurella multocida, or snuffles, is always terminal for rabbits and tree squirrels, but Powell has never heard of any rabbits being infected. "We tested rabbits in the Pine Hills area up here, and it was not found. The veterinarians will only say what the animals died from in their necropsies, but [the squirrels] are coming back."
Contrary to Treemore's assertion, Powell says that the western gray squirrel poses no problem for growers and orchard owners. "There's 37 species of birds and mammals that feed on the horticultural community of Julian, and the western gray squirrel is not on that list. They are not high on any list as a public nuisance. The ground squirrel is, and the county has a problem with fleas and mange and things like that. But the western gray squirrel is not a threat to anyone in the community in Julian. People love them, and they're wonderful to have around the yard. They're very mobile and jump around. They're beautiful, and when you see western gray squirrels, you know you're in the mountains. They're a very important mammal to this community."
The ground squirrel population, on the other hand, is multiplying so fast that some local residents are beside themselves trying to contain the problem, especially in Ramona. Shelly Meyers at Kahoots Feed Store in Ramona says that they can't keep enough squirrel poison in stock. "The squirrels outnumber us two to one! At our own house, we've got four acres, and everywhere you turn the ground squirrels have a new hole going. I think it's just the dry weather and the lack of food. I've had them getting into my horse's feed barrel. They've eaten the grapes off of our grapevines. Our distributors haven't been able to supply us with one of our best-selling products, Gopher Getter. It's a poison used for gophers and ground squirrels. It could be that the FDA wanted to do some more testing, but that's my own speculation. The rest of the state is having the same problem we're having down here, and our distributor is having trouble keeping it in stock. It's bad. I've had customers come in and tell me that they think the poison is a delicacy for ground squirrels, because they eat it and nothing happens. They'll get into any kind of plants, trees, or shrubbery and destroy them. Rose bushes, trees. They eat plants, roots, any ground cover, cat food, dog food. You walk along and it's nothing to keep stepping into one of their holes. They can't kill them fast enough. Our customers are all talking about the ground squirrels."
Down the street at the Nutrena Feed Store, Allen Linstroth says the drought had caused the ground squirrel population to get more aggressive. "They are tunneling everywhere, looking for anything moist -- be it roots or vegetation -- and there just isn't any out there. I've heard this is the worst drought since 1947, and it couldn't be worse. I've been selling lots of baits, traps, and poisons, and a lot of live traps. Some people try to relocate them, but that really doesn't solve the problem."