Unwelcome squirrels arrive in Tournament Capital



If you have seen one of these creatures, an eastern grey squirrel, around Kamloops, call 1-866-468-7077.


By Tim Petruk - Kamloops This Week
Published: March 05, 2012 1:00 PM
Updated: March 11, 2012 4:32 PM

They might look cute and harmless, but don’t be fooled — an invasive squirrel species new to the Kamloops area could mean bad news for the local ecosystem.

The eastern grey squirrel has recently found its way to the Tournament Capital and that has a Thompson Rivers University wildlife and ecology professor concerned.

“We’re dealing with an invasive species that is notorious around the globe for its ability to establish itself in different places and different ecosystems,” Karl Larsen told KTW.

“The big concerns potentially, if we look at what they’ve done elsewhere, they’ve displaced local wildlife, they’ve spread disease, they’ve damaged crops and they will eat other wildlife.”

Eastern grey squirrels are distinctive in a few ways, Larsen said.

For starters, they’re big — about twice the size of the native red squirrels Kamloops residents are used to seeing around the community.

The other giveaway — as the name would indicate — is their colouring.

“Eastern grey squirrels can be either grey or black,” Larsen said.

“I always explain it to people that it’s like black bears — they can be either black or brown.”

Red squirrels are also much more territorial than their eastern grey counterparts, meaning the invasive species is more likely to be seen congregating in large groups, while red squirrels generally go about their business on their own.

That trait, Larsen said, also poses problems because it could mean much denser squirrel populations in a given urban environment, leading to any number of ecological impacts.

Larsen said it’s still unclear how the unwanted newcomers showed up in Kamloops, but it was likely by way of Vancouver, where they’ve been established for some time.

Native to the eastern part of North America, the squirrels are believed to have arrived in B.C. initially as a gift given by the City of New York to the City of Vancouver.

They first established themselves in Stanley Park, but eventually spread outward across the Lower Mainland.

From there, Larsen said, it would have been easy for a group of the squirrels to hitch a ride aboard a truck or trailer to the Interior.

In addition to Kamloops, eastern grey squirrels are also making their presence known in Kelowna and on Vancouver Island.

Larsen said he believes the squirrels’ numbers in Kamloops are lower than those in Kelowna and Victoria, but that could change.

And, if it does, it could be big trouble for other local wildlife.

“They’ll predate on songbirds and songbirds eat insects,” Larsen said.

“There are all kinds of problems that could come from that and get more elaborate.”

The invasive rodents are also known to eat fruit — something that poses a larger risk for farmers in the Okanagan, but could still create problems in and around Kamloops.

According to Larsen, an example of what could happen if the squirrels are left to run free is playing out right now in Europe.

“In Italy, they’ve impacted a lot of the agricultural products,” he said.

“They let it go for too long and the population became too large — and now they can’t eradicate them.”

Larsen is asking local residents to keep an eye out for eastern grey squirrels and to notify researchers of any sightings.

“Eventually, we’ll get an idea of how many there are and where they are,” he said.

“Then, a decision will have to be made higher up [by government officials] about what to do.”

Anyone who spots an eastern grey squirrel in or around Kamloops is asked to call 1-855-INTRO-SQ (1-855-468-7077).

For more information about the species and efforts to monitor their activity, log on to introsquirrel.ca.