Here's a recipe for sparking outrage in Menlo Park: Poison ground squirrels without telling the public. The city has now decided that's not a recipe it wants to try again.
According to Deputy City Manager Kent Steffens, in an e-mail to one of many residents upset about the covert poisoning of squirrels at Bedwell Bayfront Park last August, "The City has received negative feedback from numerous residents and Park visitors regarding the lack of public outreach prior to hiring a contractor. The City is committed to correct this should any similar activities be performed in the future."
The contractor, Animal Damage Management Inc., used chlorophacinone bait to kill the squirrels. A report filed with San Mateo County indicates the contractor applied 30 pounds of the poison at the park, although neither the city nor the contractor would confirm that.
County agricultural commissioner Fred Crowder said the bait's toxicity is considered relatively low. Since the label didn't indicate a need to prevent anyone from entering the area of application for at least 24 hours, he said, state and federal law didn't require Menlo Park to post warning signs.
"The city, having responsibility for the park, may adopt an in-house policy as to posting when pesticides are used, but this would be self-enforced," Crowder explained.
That may or may not help residents feel safer about the risks to their pets and children. Mary Paglieri, founder of the Little Blue Society, a consulting group that says it specializes in ecologically sound, humane methods of animal population control, called the city's behavior appalling.
She pointed out that many species eat ground squirrels as food. "The toxicity of chlorophacinone may be slightly lower than other compounds, but when predators consume multiple squirrels that have been poisoned over a period of time, they will die from secondary poisoning," Paglieri said.
"Poisoned squirrels will leave the burrow to forage -- however, their ability to evade predators will be compromised from this compound, making them easier to catch and consume."
She said the risk extends to people and pets since chlorophacinone, which can contaminate surface soil and water, is easily absorbed by the skin.
"The City was irresponsible in using this poison in the first place and also for not alerting the park-goers about the dangers it may pose to people and their pets," Paglieri said.
Eradicating squirrels also impacts the park ecosystem, according to Paglieri. In addition to serving as a food source for predators, squirrels also aerate and transport soil nutrients.
The number of burrows baited at Bedwell Bayfront Park remains a mystery despite staff saying it had been "relatively few."
Steffens told the City Council on Jan. 25 that he didn't know how many sites were baited, but would try to find out. He also said the city had documented that squirrels were digging through the landfill cap at the park and dragging up trash.
However, when The Almanac asked Steffens for copies of that documentation a week before his comment to the council, he responded that staff hadn't created its own reports.
The deputy city manager initially attributed the rationale for poisoning the squirrels to county inspection reports that stated they were pulling out litter.
But The Almanac found that none of the inspection reports made that connection. The county's director of environmental health, Dean Peterson, said there was no evidence of squirrels carrying garbage to the surface.