12/12/08 — Expanded squirrel season based on sound biology

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Expanded squirrel season based on sound biology

By Mike Marsh
Published in Sports on December 12, 2008 1:46 PM

The proposed changes to the fishing, hunting and trapping seasons are now available. Outdoorsmen may view these proposals online by visiting www.ncwildlife.org. -- or obtain a copy by calling the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission at (919) 707-0050.

They may comment online, by mail or by attending one of the public hearings held statewide in each wildlife district in January. Hearing dates, locations and times are also available on the website.

One proposal (H20) would change the season framework dates for red and gray squirrels. At present, this small game season opens the second week in October and continues through the end of January. Last year a proposal to extend the squirrel season until the end of February was aired for public comment. However, an interim version, rather than the correctly-worded proposal, was accidentally submitted for public comment.

Some people still feel that extending the spring end of the season for a month, as is done in South Carolina where the season ends March 1, would increase the likelihood of taking lactating squirrels with young. Therefore, the season framework was extended by two weeks in the beginning and two weeks at the end under the current proposal.

Some hunters may balk at taking squirrels earlier than the current season because of botfly larvae infestations. However, Colleen Olfenbuttel, the commission's bear and furbearer biologist, said there is no valid reason for not extending the season for two weeks at either end as proposed or for extending the season through February.

Olfenbuttel said botfly larvae -- which are also called warbles, wolves or wobbles -- do not render the meat unfit for consumption since they come off with the skin, although they may be unsightly.

"We've learned more about the gray and red squirrel populations since the 1950s, 60s and 70s when the current season was established," said Olfenbuttel. "We now know more about their vulnerability and a lactating female is least vulnerable to hunting pressure. She won't be out and about like the male squirrels. In other states with longer seasons such as South Carolina, the preponderance of squirrels taken in February are males.

"What the hunters there are observing is backed up by the current research. It concerns us that our squirrel hunters have to go out of state to enjoy an extended season. We want to make as much hunting available to North Carolina hunters as possible."

Olfenbuttel said it was once thought that squirrels produced young only twice per year. The primary periods for squirrel birth is late February through early March and in late May through early June.

"We've documented squirrels having young throughout the year, but the peaks occur during those two times," said Olfenbuttel. "Squirrels are the most abundant game species in North Carolina and they are doing very well.

"Having the additional opportunity to hunt them in February will not have a negative impact. Last year, the season bag limit of 75 was removed because it was unenforceable and unnecessary."

Researchers in the 1950s when the current season was set, were dealing with the only significant game animal when they studied squirrels to determine a sustainable harvest rate. Squirrel seasons therefore were set conservatively.

Deer, bears and turkeys occurred in greatly reduced numbers in small areas. Many studies since then have shown that squirrels simply cannot be over harvested and they die from diminished food supply, diseases and predators as well as hunters.

"The hunter harvest is compensatory," said Olfenbuttel. "That means if hunters don't kill the squirrels, something else will. In one study, there was an attempt to remove all of the squirrels from an area and it was found to be impossible. There were just as many squirrels the next year.

"These researches also found the increased harvest can have a positive impact because it reduces the competition, which benefited remaining squirrels, increases their chances of survival and increases reproduction."

Staff biologists' support for the current proposal to extend the gray and red squirrel season is unanimous. Olfenbuttel said another good argument for expanding the season until the end of February is having it end on the same day as the current rabbit and quail season. But that can only happen if hunters request this change and support it in a future year.

According to a 2005-06 survey, 82,463 hunters hunted squirrels. Only the number of deer hunters was higher at around 250,000.