They’re furry, cute and invading the Okanagan.
Five years ago, Thompson Rivers University professor Karl Larsen warned the City of Kelowna of the devastation caused by invasive eastern grey squirrels.
Now, as the squirrels flock into City Park and elsewhere, Larsen said it’s too late for the Okanagan, as they have spread to Vernon and Penticton.
Larsen said he sent emails years ago to the City of Kelowna, but received no response on his warnings. According to the city, it doesn’t manage the squirrel population, and said the Ministry of Environment has been watching the newcomers.
“I expect the population to keep growing and growing. They’re now sighted in Vernon fairly often and they’re going to make it to Penticton. I would say the Okanagan is a goner,” said Larsen.
Naomi Bothe is a co-owner of Firefly Farm in Kelowna, and she said the squirrels have decimated the farm’s hazelnut and walnut crops.
The furry invaders started appearing on her property around seven years ago and it’s been five years since Bothe has been able to gather nuts.
“Once the invasive squirrels moved in we didn’t get any more nuts,” she said. “They’ve really destroyed that opportunity for us.”
The squirrels also chewed through storage containers in her barn.
When comparing them to the native red squirrels, she said the native species didn’t cause a problem for her nut supply.
Initially it was a few squirrels she said, but now they’re breeding and their numbers have been slowly increasing since she first spotted them.
“I’ve even found them running up the side of my house. As the population grows, I’m sure it will be a problem,” she said.
Bothe would like to see a response from the city and the provincial government.
“Up until this point, we’re thankful they haven’t gotten into our other crops,” she said, noting Firefly Farms sells mixed vegetables.
Larsen has had contact with the provincial government, but “nothing is happening. They’re not as large of a profile as a rat for instance.”
The native red squirrels, which are smaller in size, are being displaced by the larger grey squirrel, said Larsen. The red squirrel is territorial and not suited for urban environments, where the invasive species can live much closer to homes, feeding off of bird feeders and encroaching on the red squirrel’s territory.
“They don’t have this territorial behaviour, so where you would have one squirrel in your block now you have 15,” he said. “And the numbers are just going to go crazy.”
Squirrels in large numbers also cause problems with chewing through wires, damaging tulip bulbs and gardens in parks. Larsen recently conducted a study with his students which proved the squirrels will eat grapes.
The problem in dealing with invasive species, is not having the funding before the species becomes a problem, he said. Squirrels are also cute. If it was a rat problem, people might have a different response, he said.
Larsen spent weeks in the Okanagan last spring, collecting grey squirrels to see if they carry disease.
“Talking to people in these neighbourhoods, it’s clear to see the numbers are increasing and they’re eventually going to fill the city up like they’ve done elsewhere.”
There is no invasive species society specifically for the Central Okanagan, but Lisa Scott of the Okanagan and Similkameen Invasive Species Society said she has seen the squirrels in the area.
The society is involved with the invasive mussel program and works on dealing with invasive plants, but only surplus funding goes to animals like squirrels or insects, she said, and it’s more for educational purposes.
Grant programs from the ministry go to regional groups to handle plants, she said. There has been talk of an Invasive Species Act, said Scott, but it won’t be around for a period of time.
“Squirrels is just another example of ‘we don’t know what to do, so we turn to people like Larsen,'” she said.
According to David Karn, with the Ministry of Environment, the invasive squirrel more recently appeared in the Thompson-Okanagan region, “representing a significant geographical jump from the previously known range.”
A project was conducted to determine the range of the squirrel in 2012 and “we will continue to work closely with the Invasive Species Council on the management of invasive animal issues,” he said.
Bruce Smith, communications officer for the Regional District of the Central Okanagan, said there is funding set aside to deal with Canada geese, called the Geese Management Program, but not with invasive squirrels.
“We do have invasive species but it’s more noxious weeds. We do insects and weeds. We do exotic animals and we do dogs but that’s the extent of it,” he said. For funding to be allocated, the squirrels would have to be a nuisance or causing damages, he said.
Larsen predicts the squirrels will continue to spread throughout B.C.
“They are considered to be one of the 100 most invasive species on the planet,” he said. “We could stop them, but unfortunately every year goes by and it’s going to take more and more money.”