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Burgeoning Population Tussles With Pets and Tears Up Golf Courses, Keeping Trappers Busy
ITASCA, Ill.—Sean Fischer's dog, Sadie, has tussled with raccoons and possums since the family moved into this tree-lined suburb of Chicago last year. But the skunks might be her biggest nemesis.
After a good skunk spraying, "she rolls around on the ground, rubs her face all over the place, drools and tries to come by us," said Mr. Fischer, a 36-year-old quality manager for an electronics company. The first time it happened, he tried washing the 50-pound boxer-husky mix with tomato juice, shampooing her with dish soap and even taking her to a salon. She still smelled for a month.
When Sadie got sprayed last month for the third time, Mr. Fischer finally called in a trapper, who caught three skunks in the first few days.
Such tallies are becoming increasingly common in Illinois, where the skunk population has risen eight of the past 10 years, said Bob Bluett, a wildlife biologist for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. After a 46% jump in a road-kill index between 2010 and 2009, the population is the highest since 1982.
Skunks roam throughout the lower 48 states, but few states keep records on their population as faithfully as Illinois, experts say. Still, the problem here may be particularly acute. The number of skunks trapped for homeowners nationwide by Critter Control, a wildlife and pest-control company with outlets in 41 states, fell 22% to 1,193 in the first six months of 2011, compared with the same period in 2010.
Experts aren't sure why the Illinois skunk population is booming, but skunks do have one big thing in their favor: that smell. Skunks' main line of defense—a foul-smelling liquid they can spray from two sacks with great accuracy for as far as 12 feet—is so effective it keeps most potential predators away.
"Birds of prey will eat the babies because the birds don't have much of a sense of smell," said Brad Reiter, operator of Critter Control in Palatine, Ill. "But other than that, the automobile is their biggest predator."
The only thing likely to bring the skunk population down substantially is an outbreak of rabies, said Mr. Bluett, the Illinois Natural Resources official. That hasn't happened since the early 1980s, but with the population so high again, an outbreak could be on the way, he said. "If it was good enough then, it's good enough now," he said.
Skunks generally avoid one another during the summer. But in winter, "they suddenly like each other again," said Stanley Gehrt, an Ohio State University associate professor and wildlife specialist who has studied skunks in Illinois. That's when they huddle together in dens of as many as 20 individuals, making them vulnerable to rabies outbreaks.
Because they are considered prime carriers of rabies, captured skunks must be euthanized in Illinois and many other states. Some 8,700 problem skunks were disposed of in the state last year, Mr. Bluett said. This year's tally could be even higher.
Mr. Reiter, who charges $155 per trap and $55 per animal caught, uses humane traps bated with grape jelly and other concoctions that skunks like. His company has trapped about 475 skunks this year and expects to reach 600 by year end, up from 528 last year and 434 in 2009.
Rob Erickson, another Illinois trapper with a business called On Target, uses traps too, but he takes a more direct—though still legal—approach on bigger jobs. "I drive around at night and shoot them," he said. On a recent evening, he says he shot a total of 27 skunks at two golf courses, hopping out of a small SUV to shoot them with a .22-caliber rifle.
He said the skunks tear up the courses while digging for grubs. "This year, they've been horrendous," he said, with their digging causing "a tremendous amount of damage."
Mr. Fischer, the homeowner in Itasca, said he has gotten better at treating Sadie's smell when she gets sprayed. But the skunks are keeping his family of three inside the house at night and have cost him about $500 in shampoo, treatments and trapping fees. "It's terrible," he said. "We can't enjoy our yard and it's getting expensive."
But Mr. Fischer vows to keep paying Mr. Reiter at Critter Control until the problem is solved: "When he stops having full traps, that's when we'll stop having him come."
Credits: By Joe Barrett - Wall Street Journal