CEDARVILLE, Calif. — In April of 1918, the State Horticulture Commission enlisted the help of California school children to help reduce the population of invasive ground squirrels which were decimating farmers' fields at a staggering rate. The commission estimated that $30 million annually was lost due to the ground squirrels.
The hungry rodents caused food shortages across the nation and ultimately impacted the war efforts. The horticulture commission paid out thousands to kill ground squirrels and held a contest known as “Squirrel Week, the Spring Drive,” which urged kids to poison or kill ground squirrels by any means possible and bring their tails in for a prize.
The war on squirrels was not a joke. It was an actual part of California history, and a version of that history lives on today in the eastern most edge of Modoc County.
Every spring, hunters from all over the state travel to the little town of Cedarville for the annual squirrel war, "Squirrel Roundup."
In Modoc County, the ground squirrel problem never went away. In fact when poison was outlawed, the population exploded. Now, the only humane way to manage the population is by hunting them, and farmer Jon Arreche’s family has been welcoming hunters onto their land for generations.
“In the 1980s, they got really thick here. My grandfather has fought them forever,” Arreche said.
Not to be confused with tree squirrels, these are Belding ground squirrels, a rodent that lives underground burrowing holes in farmers’ fields and then eats their crops.
“I’d say we lose 30% in these fields. Some fields like our dry land fields, our grains, we lose 50% to 70%,” Arreche said.
Dirt mounds made by ground squirrels also damage expensive farm equipment, and the holes injure the legs of cattle.
Ground squirrels can have upwards of 15 babies a year. Predators like coyotes and birds cannot keep up with the population in Modoc County.
Under special circumstances and under the watchful eye of the state, ground squirrel-specific poison is an option. With state approval, licensed herbicide providers like Chris Wilson can apply approved poison to kill the squirrels.
“We are coming in and putting in zinc phosphide. It’s a powdered poison,” Wilson said. “So if a raptor came and ate the squirrel after the squirrel ate the poison, it wouldn’t kill it.”
Farmers like Arreche have had great success with the poison. There is, however, one problem. If your neighbor doesn’t do it, then the squirrels just come back.
There’s no license needed to kill ground squirrels, and there is no limit on how many you can kill, which makes 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 BBQ, you will hear lots hunters talk about how many they killed, but the white lies are all in fun.
In reality, the modern-day squirrel wars is more of an economic boost for Cedarville and Modoc County.
We may never know if hunting is really putting a dent in the ground squirrel population, but the tradition continues on.
If you want to read more about Modoc County’s battle with squirrels, check out local author Jean Bilodeaux's book “Squirrel Wars.”