The Brutal Story Behind Squirrels and Squirrel Wars

That’s why Modoc County enlists the help of hunters for pest control.

CEDARVILLE, Calif. — In April 1918, the State Horticultural Commission enlisted the help of California schoolchildren to help reduce the population of invasive ground squirrels that were decimating farmers’ fields at an astonishing rate. The commission estimated that $30 million was lost annually due to ground squirrels.

The hungry rodents caused food shortages across the country and ultimately affected the war effort. The horticultural commission paid thousands of dollars to kill ground squirrels and held a contest known as “Squirrel Week, Spring Drive”, which urged children to poison or kill ground squirrels by any means possible and bring their tails as prizes.

The war against the squirrels was not a joke. It was a real part of California history, and a version of that history lives today on the easternmost edge of Modoc County.

Every spring, hunters from around the state travel to the small town of Cedarville for the annual squirrel war, “Squirrel Roundup.”

In Modoc County, the ground squirrel problem never went away. In fact, when the poison was banned, the population exploded. Now the only humane way to manage the population is to hunt them, and the family of farmer Jon Arreche has been welcoming hunters to their land for generations.

“In the 1980s, they got really heavy here. My grandfather has always fought them,” said Arreche.

Not to be confused with tree squirrels, these are Belding’s ground squirrels, a rodent that lives in underground burrows in farmers’ fields and then eats their crops.

“I would say that we lose 30% in these fields. Some fields like our rainfed fields, our grains, we lose from 50% to 70%”, said Arreche.

The mounds of dirt made by ground squirrels also damage expensive farm equipment, and the holes injure the legs of livestock.

Ground squirrels can have more than 15 offspring a year. Predators such as coyotes and birds cannot keep up with the population in Modoc County.

In special circumstances and under the watchful eye of the state, specific ground squirrel poison is an option. With state approval, licensed herbicide providers like Chris Wilson can apply approved poison to kill squirrels.

“We are going in and putting zinc phosphide. It’s a powdered poison,” Wilson said. “So if a raptor came and ate the squirrel after the squirrel ate the poison, he wouldn’t kill it.”

Farmers like Arreche have had great success with the poison. There is, however, a problem. If your neighbor doesn’t, the squirrels come back.

You don’t need a license to kill ground squirrels, and there’s no limit to how many you can kill, making hunting them the most viable option for population control right now.

Unfortunately, kill rates aren’t recorded, and if you attend the annual Squirrel Roundup barbecue, you’ll hear plenty of hunters talking about how many they killed, but white lies are all fun.

Actually, today’s squirrel wars are more of an economic boost to Cedarville and Modoc County.

We may never know if hunting is really taking a toll on the ground squirrel population, but the tradition lives on.

If you want to read more about Modoc County’s battle with the squirrels, check out the book “Squirrel Wars” by local author Jean Bilodeaux.

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