The skunk probably didn’t want to be in the window well any more than the homeowner wanted it there, and Jean Youshefski got the call recently to do something about it.
The community service officer for the Grand Forks Police Department solved the potentially odoriferous encounter with a homemade ladder that allowed the skunk to climb to freedom.
“There’s not a lot we can do—just sort of help to get it out of there,” Youshefski said. “If it keeps hanging around, we’ll live trap it.”
It’s all in a day’s work for Youshefski, whose job includes dealing with both domestic animals and urban wildlife.
Deer, coyotes and even the occasional bear or moose sometimes find their way into Grand Forks and East Grand Forks city limits, but Youshefski and others say most of the wildlife calls they receive involve animals of the smaller variety.
Turns out wild critters of all types find city limits to their liking.
“We’ll see raccoons and woodchucks,” Youshefski said. “Once in awhile, a badger will make a huge hole next to a foundation, the homeowner sees him and we get called.”
Any wildlife encounter in city limits is noteworthy, Youshefski says, a break from the usual routine of dogs and cats and other domestic pets.
Deer are the worst, and they have been known to crash through windows and doors into people’s homes, Youshefski said. That’s what happened in June 2010, when Youshefski and other officers responded to a call about a small doe that crashed into an apartment and created a bloody mess—in every sense—while managing to avoid a big screen TV.
The deer was so badly injured it had to be euthanized.
“When they’re in town, they just panic,” Youshefski said. “When they see their reflection, they panic.
“Occasionally, we do have to shoot them, which is sad, but sometimes they get injured.”
Deer encounters tend to be more prevalent in the summer, when the animals wander into wooded residential areas seeking shade, Youshefski said.
“Deer just get squirrelly,” she said. “We try to keep our distance and if they are heading for trouble, use the vehicle to keep them out of a certain area, but it’s very hard, and they just panic and run where they want.”
A bit of everything
Marty Egeland, Grand Forks outreach biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, said he also gets calls about wildlife in city limits.
“We have everything,” he said. “In the last few years, we’ve had bears in town, we’ve had moose in town before. There’s deer in town all the time, and there are deer that live in town.
“There’s also the usual contingent of skunks, raccoons, fox and coyotes.”
Beavers, otters and even the occasional fisher have been spotted along the English Coulee and the Red River.
Perhaps the most notable wildlife encounter in recent memory occurred in November 2014, when a bear running through residential areas was shot by authorities near Grand Cities Mall. The bear resisted attempts to herd it out of town, and with no nonlethal options, authorities shot the bear.
A bear also wandered into East Grand Forks in May 2014, but police were able to chase the animal out of town without incident.
That’s the best-case scenario, Egeland said.
“Our best bet is hopefully these things wander off,” said Egeland, who wasn’t involved in either bear incident. “Black bears for the most part aren’t anything to worry about, but physically, they’re big enough to hurt somebody.”
Deer, by comparison, are more abundant, and the Greenway is a sanctuary for the animals, Egeland said.
“It’s getting to be more of a problem as areas of that Greenway get brushed in,” he said. “There’s been deer living down there for years, and there’s getting to be more as time goes on.”
Cities such as Fargo and Bismarck have gone so far as to offer archery seasons for deer, but to date, Egeland said, local officials haven’t approached the Game and Fish Department about a similar hunt in Grand Forks.
“We’re all for letting people hunt, but the city will have to take the lead on that,” he said. “When they decide they want to, we’ll work with them to make it happen.”
Duck calls spike
Youshefski and Egeland both say they get calls about ducks with broods that get stranded in busy areas. It’s not uncommon for ducks to nest a mile away from water, Egeland said.
“If you’re a mile away from water in Grand Forks, you’ve got a lot of roads to cross,” he said. “You’re going to have to cross streets without being hit by cars. Someone’s dog or cat might catch you.
“It’s just a different set of dangers than being out in the country where maybe you’re dodging raccoons or coyotes. It’s a tough life being a critter out there.”
This year, Youshefski said, the calls about ducks began earlier in the spring and persisted longer than usual.
“They started the last week in May, and we had one July 3 crossing Columbia Road so that’s quite a spread for baby ducks,” she said. “I’m not sure why that is.”
Her advice to people who encounter baby ducks—or baby animals of any kind—is to leave them alone.
“Let the ducks go their way,” she said. “When they hatch, they need to head for the coulee and for water. They make it pretty good on their own. Occasionally, we catch them and give them a free ride.”
Rabbits also find city limits to their liking, and while they can be a nuisance to gardeners, Youshefski said the police department doesn’t respond to bunny complaints.
“We don’t try to trap them or anything,” she said. “We depend on the raptors to take care of them.”
Rabbit haters can take comfort in knowing raptors are flourishing in city limits. Grand Forks has one of North Dakota’s two nesting peregrine falcon pairs, which nest atop the UND water tower, and smaller raptors such as Cooper’s hawks and merlins also find urban environments to their liking.
Local raptor expert Tim Driscoll says Grand Forks has 19 Cooper’s hawk nests and at least 20 merlin nests in city limits. He’s banded merlins in the past but puts most of his efforts into banding Cooper’s hawks.
Driscoll catches the adults by setting a long, small-mesh net below the hawks’ nests and placing an owl decoy near the net. He then plays a recording of owls and crows to rile up the hawks, which charge the decoy and fly into the net for Driscoll to catch and band.
The owner of a local tree service provides a bucket truck for reaching the chicks.
Driscoll estimates he’s banded more than 600 Cooper’s hawks since he got his federal banding permit in 2008.
“They’re thriving,” he said. “They do well in places like Grand Forks with mature trees, city parks, cemeteries and that kind of thing.”
The growing popularity of birdwatching and feeding songbirds has given urban raptors a steady, convenient food supply, Driscoll said.
“Cooper’s hawks are thinking, ‘this is cool,’ ” Driscoll said. “And just by luck, they lost their three main natural predators—great horned owls, raccoons and redtail hawks (in city limits). I’m not suggesting they don’t exist in urban environments, but they’re certainly at a lot lower densities.”
Despite their beauty, songbirds sometimes prompt calls from homeowners who complain about the droppings, Egeland said.
“With songbirds, you’re just going to have to suck it up,” he said. “If bird droppings on your deck are your biggest worry, you’ve got it made in life.”
Local birding expert Dave Lambeth, who helped compile the “Birds of the Greenway” checklist about 15 years ago, said some 200 to 225 species of birds are known to inhabit or pass through the Greenway.
Species such as cardinals and American redstart, a warbler species, now nest in city limits, Lambeth said, while others such as Baltimore orioles seem to be declining.
“One of the problems is it’s kind of easy sometimes to know when something new has shown up,” Lambeth said. “It’s much harder to know when species have disappeared for sure.”
Biologists haven’t surveyed city wildlife populations, but a study now underway in Grand Forks aims to shed light on numbers and home ranges of skunks, perhaps the most abundant local wildlife.
Led by Jay Boulanger, assistant professor of wildlife ecology and human dimensions at UND, and graduate student Anna Schneider, the research project launched in late June involves live trapping skunks and fitting them with VHF radio collars to track their movements and learn more about the animals’ home ranges.
Eventually, information gleaned from the study could help better understand skunk movements for rabies mitigation, which involves placing baits injected with vaccines into areas the animals inhabit.
Skunks, along with bats and raccoons, are the most common wildlife associated with rabies.
“If you get an idea of home range and how many skunks are being trapped, then you can get an idea of how many baits to put out on the landscape,” Boulanger said.
The goal of the two-year study is to catch and collar 30 skunks each of the next two summers.
As of Monday, Boulanger and Schneider had fitted 12 skunks with the radio collars.
The work just might be the animal research equivalent of defusing a bomb.
As Boulanger demonstrated during a recent outing, he approaches a skunk in a live trap with a tarp that serves as a shield if the animal sprays and calms the skunk when it covers the trap.
The researchers then put the tarp-covered cages in the back of the truck and haul them back to campus, where they sedate the skunks, take various measurements and collect blood, hair and tooth samples to age the animal.
The radio collar comes last, and the skunks then are returned to where they were trapped. Schneider will use telemetry equipment to track the skunks throughout the year.
“We don’t know much about skunks—they’re an understudied animal for obvious reasons,” Boulanger said with a laugh. “Until now, there have really only been two good published accounts of skunk ecology in (North America), and one was outside a suburb of Chicago and another one was Toronto.
“We’re pretty far north so what happens here might be very different from the other two studies,” Boulanger said. “We certainly don’t know much about the urban ecology of skunks here in Grand Forks. There’ve been studies of skunks in North Dakota but not urban ecology studies.”
Boulanger, who moved to Grand Forks from Ithaca, N.Y., where he oversaw a hunting program to tackle deer problems at Cornell University, said urban landscapes are going to be a larger focus of wildlife management in the future.
“Because there’s no traditional hunting, populations can get high in a hurry, and I think urban wildlife management—it’s very important now, but I think it’s going to be increasing in importance because we humans keep moving into cities and away from the rural areas.”
Youshefski, the Grand Forks community service officer, says she sees that trend locally as the city expands south.
“The newer residential areas are places where they end up dealing with a lot of wildlife,” Youshefski said. “People are moving into their territory.”