They’ve taken over Britain, moved through Italy and now invasive grey squirrels are storming B.C.
When Karl Larsen talks about the eastern grey squirrel, he makes the bushy-tailed critters sound like a marauding army — with good reason.
Eastern grey squirrels are one of the top 100 invasive species in the world.
“They’ve taken over Britain. They’re moving through Italy. They have a beachhead in South Africa. These guys are conquerors,” said Larsen, a wildlife ecology and management professor at Thompson Rivers University.
Introduced deliberately to Stanley Park in 1909, the critters are entrenched in Metro Vancouver and have spread to other parts of B.C., which appears to have surrendered to the squirrel invasion.
“Right now, nothing is happening, so they’re multiplying,” said conservation programs manager Robyn Worcester of the Stanley Park Ecology Society.
“Controlling their population at this point is not an easy task.”
The eastern greys, which are native to eastern North America, spread to Vancouver Island in the 1960s and in recent years to the Okanagan, potentially threatening the region’s agricultural industry.
Their impact in the Okanagan is the “big unknown,” said Larsen. “As their numbers build, we do not know what is going to be the impact on the different agricultural products, including the wine grapes.
“But what we’re trying to say is: Let’s stop them before we find out what they do.”
In England, the eastern grey squirrels have decimated the local European red squirrels, mostly with disease, and have had an impact on commercial forestry. The animals have also hit Italy’s hazelnut industry hard, and are continuing their rampage into the country’s winemaking regions.
In 2012, B.C.’s environment ministry partnered with Larsen on a project to determine the extent of the spread of the eastern greys in the Okanagan, which the government said was the first step in deciding on options for eradication or control. But the project puttered out due to a lack of will and funds, said Larsen.
“There was concern, but there was really no movement at all by municipal and provincial governments to do anything about them,” he said.
Larsen believes there should have been a cull in 2012 to prevent them from establishing in the area.
Experts say B.C.’s smaller red squirrels are in no danger of extinction, but there is no doubt their numbers decline in areas where there are grey squirrels, particularly in urban and suburban areas, where they thrive.
Eastern greys also displace native bird populations because they eat eggs and nestlings and damage trees by gnawing on bark.
And they drive homeowners, well, nutty because they can nest in roofs and attics, chew through electrical wiring and shingles, and destroy flower beds.
Anecdotally, some Metro Vancouver pest control firms report an increase in squirrel pest calls.
“There seems to be a lot more of them than there used to be,” said Rob Stobbe of Pest Maven, adding eastern greys make up more than 95 per cent of his squirrel calls.
“They have great fecundity. They are becoming more rat-like with their reproductive rates.”
Even in Stanley Park, where the squirrels gained their first toehold in the Lower Mainland, the animals are not wanted. But the Stanley Park Ecology Society is too busy focusing on invasive plants to deal with the squirrels.
“Ultimately, we would rather see none of them,” said Worcester. “From an ecological perspective, they shouldn’t be here.”
But it seems the squirrels have a big ace up their furry sleeves: People like them.
“There’s no appetite to act on them because they’re cute,” said Worcester.
There are no active plans to cull or control the eastern grey squirrel population in B.C.
In a statement, the environment ministry said it will continue to work closely with the Invasive Species Council on the management of invasive animal issues.
Gail Wallin, the council’s executive director, said that historically the government has focused on invasive plants rather than animals.
Her group is calling on the government to double its budget from $5.8 million last fiscal year to fight invasive species in the province.