Nuisance trappers: Skunk population up this year

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Neil Johnson
Thursday, October 3, 2013

JANESVILLE—When I got home from work Tuesday night, Cooper, the family dog, was locked in the garage. The garage door was closed, but I could smell him before I even got out of my car.

The stink was like a mix of sewage and smoldering rubber.

It seems Cooper had been out for his nightly walkabout in the backyard when he came across a young, inquisitive Mephitis mephitis: alias polecat, alias striped skunk.

My wife, Melissa, recounted how she'd tried to spray Cooper with the garden hose to get him to back off the frightened skunk, which he had cornered near the garden. The skunk beat her to the punch.

It spun around backward, lifted its white tail and let out a 10-second blast of thick, yellow musk into the cool night air. Cooper caught most of the rank fog right in his face. The side of the house (and Melissa) caught the rest.

I went to Woodman's and grabbed three gallons of white vinegar, two giant boxes of baking soda and several bottles of dog shampoo: de-skunking supplies, according to a quick Google search on my smartphone.

Melissa got herself cleaned up, but two days and three dog-baths later, Cooper still reeks—albeit more mildly. As for Cooper's friend the skunk, he was back skulking around our yard last night. I could smell him.

At work, I called trappers and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Lately, I told them, I've noticed more than a few dead skunks in the road, and on my nightly walks in Janesville, I've seen lots of skunks out foraging.

Yet, Tuesday was the first time we'd actually had a skunk invade our property, which is near the mall on Janesville's northeast side.

Dan Hansen, a Lake Geneva-based nuisance animal trapper who works in Rock, Walworth and Dane counties, was not surprised. Hansen has spent most of this year dealing with a deluge of calls for nuisance skunks under people's porches, decks and sheds.

“It's been a significantly bigger year for skunks. I don't know why,” Hansen said.

One day this summer, it reached the point of absurd.   

“I was at (Lake) Geneva Commons on one call on raccoons and two skunks. In the time it took me to set three live traps there, I had five more skunk complaints in Walworth, Rock and Dane piled up on my cellphone,” Hansen said. “You get so many calls you can't even keep up. I was having to refer people to other nuisance outfits for a while.”

He said one man in Walworth County had three mother skunks with three separate sets of babies all under his deck.

“That's so many skunks in one place it doesn't even make sense. They're territorial animals. They don't normally pile up like that,” Hansen said.

The state DNR does no official population count on skunks, which are considered nuisance animals. There's no set season for trapping or hunting them. 

Eric Lobner, wildlife supervisor for the DNR's southern district, said a rise in the skunk population in southern Wisconsin wouldn't surprise anyone.

He said a break in last year's drought and a cool, wet start to the year gave rise to more insects, small mammals, aquatic and amphibious creatures such as frogs and toads and especially mice. Those critters are a skunk's ideal diet.

“Where you have a higher feed base of prey animals, you'd have higher production of skunks. A higher nutritional intake (for skunks) leads to higher reproduction rates,” Lobner said.

Combine that with what local DNR field biologist Brian Buenzow calls the “fall shuffle.” Now's the time of year when young mammals are out of the nest and on the move, mostly at night, foraging on their own for the first time.

Skunks right now are apt to root in the ground for grubs and even scavenge garden detritus, Buenzow said. Both can put them in your backyard, where clashes with unwitting people and pets are more likely.

Our run-in Tuesday seemed more a pitfall for us and our dumb dog than for the skunk. But it's a common occurrence in a skunk year, Lobner said, and a skunk's spray is fairly harmless except for the smell—which, as we learned, is strong enough to permeate a house's siding and get inside.

Although skunks are a major carrier of rabies, Lobner said skunk spray, an oily irritant that skunks produce in glands under their tail, poses no risk of transmitting disease. He said pets outdoors should be up to date on rabies vaccinations, and people should avoid touching a killed or dead skunk with their bare hands.

The best remedy to rid skunk-spray smell from a dog, a person or clothing, Lobner said, is to mix a paste of water, hydrogen peroxide or vinegar and baking soda. Lather it up, and let the solution soak in well before washing it off.

Lobner said some common remedies to skunk-proof your yard include moth balls, cayenne pepper, ammonia-soaked rags and a radio outside tuned to talk radio. Yet, he said, skunks eventually get desensitized to those deterrents.

“They're interested in food. If you've got the best buffet around, they'll eventually come back,” he said.

Lobner said people should rid their yard of fallen seed under birdfeeders and keep dishes of pet food inside at night.

If skunks are holed up under a porch or in a burrow nearby, the only real way to get rid of them, says trapper Hansen, is to have them trapped and removed.

“If they're digging in your yard, you can bet they've got a burrow real near. Skunks don't travel very far, maybe only 1,000 yards. They are going to come back,” he said.

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