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Most people run away from skunks. Stan Gehrt ran toward them. For six years, he and other researchers spent some long nights in Busse Woods trapping the critters in nets so they could be outfitted with radio collars.
"We got sprayed a lot," said Gehrt. "I was a favorite of neighborhood dogs."
The research nearly cost him friends not fond of his unique cologne but also yielded important answers to a question some may be asking this spring: What's up with all the skunks?
The state's skunk population increased in seven of the past eight years, often by double-digit percentages, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. In 2008, for example, the population jumped 18 percent over the previous year. The year before, it was up 5 percent.
More skunks were reported in 2008 — the most recent numbers available — than in any year since the early 1980s, and the skunk population has doubled over the past decade, according to the Department of Natural Resources, which based its calculation on the number of skunks found as roadkill.
Gehrt's study — his latest report comes out in a wildlife journal later this month — involved more than 100 skunks. He found that the population boom is largely due to a decline in rabies and a string of mild winters, the two forces traditionally hostile to the critters' survival.
It looks as if Chicago and the suburbs lead the pack when it comes to the number of reports of skunks trapped in Illinois. More than two-thirds of the 8,600 skunks captured in 2008 were taken in the Chicago area, according to numbers released last fall by the Department of Natural Resources.
And that has meant a brisk business for companies that remove the animals. For example, Critter Control of Palatine, with a service area that stretches through Lake, DuPage and northern Cook counties, has seen its highest trapping totals of the decade over the last three years. The peak was 2009, when 434 skunks were trapped and killed, said co-owner Brad Reiter.
"The population has increased quite a bit and it's staying up there," Reiter said.
Nuisance calls are likely to spike again late next month when the babies, or kits, are born and trail their mothers in packs.
A sustained rabies outbreak last hit the state's skunk population in the early 1980s, Gehrt said. In the absence of rabies, only harsh winters can thin the herd. In a typical winter, just half of skunks emerge from hibernation, Gehrt said. If the weather is less severe, the number of survivors jumps to 70 percent.
Chicago winters were consistently wimpy from 2001 through 2007, with five of six registering an average temperature above the historical mean of 25.5 degrees, according to the National Weather Service.
The past three winters have been colder than average, but skunks born during that mid-decade warm spell likely are still roaming the area, as their life span typically runs five to six years, experts say.
Despite their small size and lack of speed, skunks aren't often targeted by predators — and for good reason. Their rancid spray provides an almost universal defense. Only great horned owls, which can't detect scent, are willing to try their luck, Gehrt said. And even those attacks are rare: just three owl-on-skunk attacks occurred during his six-year study.
Residents tempted to get a trap and try to remove a skunk themselves should note that they will need a state nuisance wildlife control permit to remove one from their property.
And state law prohibits releasing trapped skunks into the wild because they are the primary carriers of rabies in this region, said Bob Bluett of the Department of Natural Resources.
Irv Schirmer, a recreational trapper in Marengo, is president of the region's chapter of Fur Takers of America. He says he traps 30 to 40 skunks a season, which runs from November to January.
Schirmer has been sprayed just twice. The first time came when he was in fourth grade near his home in rural northern Wisconsin.
"I got kicked out of grade school because I stunk so bad," said Schirmer, 77, who said he had to walk the 2 1/2 miles home, then submit to a sniff test by teachers over the next few days.
He usually encounters skunks in one of two postures: curled up sleeping or stamping their feet. When a skunk pounds its feet on the ground, it's signaling an intent to spray.
Schirmer's advice at such moments: "You better stand still. Don't back away."
While most would want to be as far as possible from a skunk's spray, Schirmer carefully extracts the substance with a needle from the animal's two thumbnail-size glands. He stores the amber-colored fluid in plastic jars in his barn. It's often used as a lure to help trap coyotes.
After so many years chasing skunks, he says he has developed an immunity to the scent.
"I've smelled this stink for so long I don't notice it," Schirmer said.
Gehrt agreed, calling complaints about the acrid smell overrated.
During his research between 1999 and 2005 — it was sponsored by the Max McGraw Wildlife Foundation of Dundee — Gehrt and his team regularly used spotlights to net the skunks. Getting sprayed was an occupational hazard, he said. The effort was aimed at studying skunks while they were in their winter dens to help pin down the factors that contribute to their survival or death.
Gehrt's most recent paper examines skunk parasites. His previous two papers looked at factors that can limit their population, diseases and their social and family structures.
Now a wildlife biologist at Ohio State University, his focus has shifted from skunks to urban coyotes.
So why did he try a new line of work?
"Other people were getting tired of me working with skunks," he said. "For the benefit of those around me, I decided to quit."
Credits: By Dan Simmons - Chicago Tribune