What happened to Morro Rock's squirrels?

bmorem@thetribunenews.comJanuary 23, 2013 

A ground squirrel munches grass near Morro Rock in June 2011.

DAVID MIDDLECAMP — dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com Buy Photo

File this one under “S” for Squirrelly. That’s the case with the disappearance of the band of squirrels that make a living on the north and south sides of Morro Rock.

Where there were once hundreds of the rodentia capering around Target Rock and the riprap on the Rock’s north side, cadging food from tourists while gulls meted out their pecking-order justice on the four-legged interlopers, now there is just a handful. Why?

That’s a question that Marje Legerton would like to have answered.

Marje is a Los Osos resident whose energy belies her nine-plus decades on Earth. It’s a life force she’s used for tending to the scurry of Morro Rock squirrels for the past 30 years. She’s fed and watered them, given them names, watched them grow from kit to old age. To say Marje is emotionally invested in the Rock’s squirrel population is a DEFCON 1 understatement.

In order to help her furry friends fend off the rigors of life on the Rock, Marje and others first placed water and food in various nooks and crannies around the monolith a number of years ago. She and others then cemented the bowls into place as permanent squirrel service stations.

And then one day, to their dismay, they found the bowls had been smashed to smithereens.

Marje sent out an SOS, which literally became a group called Save Our Squirrels, and she marched into Harbor Director Eric Endersby’s Harbor Patrol headquarters and demanded answers.

Endersby admitted busting up the cemented bowls and feeding stations. He tried to explain public health and safety issues.

“A fair number of squirrel bites occur each year, from a couple to a half-dozen, with people coming into our office looking for a Band-Aid. It’s not malicious; squirrels can misjudge their bite and nip someone.”

He added that squirrels could carry plague and rabies. (However, according to veterinary health officials, squirrels are rarely infected with the rabies virus. Squirrels also have not been known to cause rabies in humans within the United States. Bites from a squirrel are not considered a risk for rabies unless the animal was sick or behaving in an unusual manner and rabies is widespread in the area.)

But Endersby had another point: “It’s an artificial support system; what happens when they (the sources of food, i.e. tourists) go away?

“They’re like small cats. They’re huge from eating cookies, white bread and other things that aren’t healthy for them. It’s become a big artificial support system, and it’s really not fair to the squirrels.”

Nevertheless, Endersby said he wouldn’t take a sledge to the reinstalled water bowls — and they remain intact today. Yet, the north Rock squirrels are now virtually gone, kaput. Marje feared a poisoning campaign was afoot.

Again she went back to Endersby, who assured her he had had no hand in any way, shape or form in reducing the Rock’s squirrel population.

So he checked with the city’s Recreation and Parks Department to see if they had a squirrel-poisoning program. No.

He next checked with Animal Services, who not only denied any poisoning program but suggested that Endersby go to the Morro Bay City Council and lobby for an ordinance to either prohibit squirrel feeding or allow eradication; that way any action is in the public domain.

“I don’t have the time and energy for this,” Endersby said of the option. “It’s not that important, I’m not going to fall on my sword for this.”

Then a rumor was floated that state Fish & Game — now renamed Fish and Wildlife — was the entity behind a poisoning campaign. A call to Fish and Wildlife Lt. Todd Tognazzini, a Morro Bay native, pretty much dispelled that notion.

“It’s not true. We don’t poison anything, anywhere at any time. We’ll issue predation permits to ranchers, but we don’t harm wildlife at any level.”

A call to county public health as to whether they had a handle on the mystery went unreturned. However, it’s highly doubtful that the agency has been involved in any poisoning of squirrels or any other potential natural health threat: They disbanded their vector control department several years ago when a proposition that would have underwritten mosquito and varmint control was defeated at the polls.

So the situation remains a mystery: Has the decimation been a result of premeditated poisoning? Or could it be simply a case of natural predation and colony die-off?

It’s a squirrelly situation, one that you can bet Marje Legerton will be leading a charge in finding answers.

Bill Morem can be reached at bmorem@thetribunenews.com or at 781-7852.

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