Mass Squirrel Die-Off


State biologists are mystified by a mass squirrel die-off that has left more than a hundred dead squirrels washed up on West Michigan beaches.

Among the questions: Why are the expired tree dwellers ending up in the water?

The first possibilities to be checked are disease or parasites. The odd circumstance will remain a mystery for several more weeks as the Michigan Department of Natural Resources conduct tests on tissue samples.

Nik Kalejs, a DNR biologist with the Muskegon Game Area, said samples from squirrel carcasses have been sent to laboratories at Michigan State University for analysis. Officials believe it is likely the squirrels are dying from natural causes. Lab technicians will be looking at a variety of causes, include squirrel pox or possibly West Nile disease.

"We cannot rule anything out," he said. "What we do know is the number of dead squirrels found seems to go beyond normal."

For the past three weeks, West Michigan residents have been noticing a large number of dead squirrels along Lake Michigan, fueling speculation that the animals are being ravaged by a disease or are being poisoned. DNR officials say deliberate poisoning is highly unlikely because of the number of squirrels being affected and the wide area where squirrel bodies are being found.

There is a possibility of food contamination. They said there have been reports of dead squirrels along much of the Lake Michigan shoreline in Michigan.

"All of these will be explored," Kalejs said.

Russ Bleich, who was a DNR conservation officer for Muskegon and Ottawa counties for 30 years, recalled a similar situation years ago where construction work along the U.S. 31 drawbridge in Grand Haven caused a number of squirrels to die and fall into the Grand River. The incident caused a large number of squirrel bodies to wash up on Lake Michigan beaches around Grand Haven, he said.

Just as Lake Michigan beaches are littered with garbage carried by the Grand River from communities upriver, Bleich suspects most of the dead squirrels are being carried to Lake Michigan beaches by area rivers. He said these beaches are likely the final resting spots for the squirrels and the animals are not dying in Lake Michigan or on its beaches.

"It's just like seeing a bunch of spend shotgun shell casings on the beach; they were carried to the lake by the rivers," he said. "The same goes for the squirrels. My gut feeling is this is a natural occurrence and that the squirrels are being carried downstream by the river.

"When all of this settles, I believe it is going to be some natural occurrence or some parasite."

Some of the tissue samples were collected by DNR officers at P.J. Hoffmaster State Park's Gillette Nature Center. Nature center workers said the squirrels first were noticed on the beach about three weeks ago, but have no reports of a large number of bodies found in the woods.

The number of bodies found on the beach has been steadily declining, they said. Most of those affected are fox squirrels.

The squirrel deaths have been a hot topic with area high school biology classes. Grand Haven High School Biology teacher Roger Glass said his students have been buzzing over a recent phenomenon of dead squirrels, in alarming numbers, along the lakeshore.

"I've never heard of anything like this before. There's something very strange going on," Glass said.

Glass said if it was just one species it might be a certain disease or disorder. Otherwise, there would be various species involved. Student reports indicate fox and red squirrels have been sited swimming or dead along the shoreline.

"I have no idea what's going on," Glass said. "The DNR was talking about somebody poisoning them and they go for water. But ... it can't be just somebody poisoning them because they're all up and down the lakeshore."

DNR investigators have collected squirrel carcasses as evidence to determine a cause for the problem. Samples have been sent to a lab to determine whether a disease may be to blame for outbreak of dead squirrels.

Grand Haven Senior Ashleigh Urbanik, 17, has noticed dead squirrels floating along the boardwalk and pier as well as others swimming.

"Someone built a stick bridge from a pile of branches to the shore so they could cross. We rescued three of them. They were fox squirrels," she said. "Once we got them out they just sat there because they were so tired. They looked normal except for they were sopping wet and really tired."

Grand Haven Township resident John Stuparits said he walked along the boardwalk recently and saw dozens of squirrels in the river. Some of the squirrels were still alive and fishermen scooped them up with nets to save them.

Stuparits, who is the manager of Grand Haven's wastewater plant, said at first glance he thought maybe high waters from rain around Labor Day might have caused the problem. But as Stuparits saw more floating carcasses, he realized it was a bigger problem than that.

"At first, you think maybe one or two of them fell in," he said. "But after several consecutive times going down there and seeing the same thing, you have to think there's more behind it."

Peace - Anna

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Oktober 2004

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