Ground squirrels feel the need to dash across this road constantly. Agriculture has let their numbers boom. In spring these exuberant rodents (Spermophilus beldingi) are bulbous with health. When I visited in April, the huge ground squirrels looked to me like young marmots. To hawks and eagles they look delicious and convenient.
Since there aren't many trees in Surprise Valley, the abundant raptors don't have many places to perch. Power poles by the road are decked with birds of prey, including bald eagles.
To ranchers the ground squirrels look neither amusing nor tasty. They look destructive. Squirrels churn and pile the soil, making harvest harder. They eat crops. They excavate holes perfect for snapping the legs of livestock. They puncture drainage ditches with their burrows. They clear large areas around their burrows, endeavoring to turn alfalfa fields into Spermophilus subdivisions.
Ranchers used to poison them with sodium fluoroacetate, also called Compound 1080, until that was banned. They turned to guns. In March the Surprise Valley Chamber of Commerce holds a Squirrel Roundup. This doesn't involve actual rounding up but simply shooting as many as possible. Out-of-towners pay to participate. It's possible to shoot 300-400 in a day. Hawks and eagles enthusiastically scavenge carcasses. “The fields... were... swarmed by bald eagles, falcons and hawks... enjoying an evening meal,” wrote Jean Bilodeaux for the Klamath Falls Herald and News.
Judging by the number of squirrels frisking about in April, there are many ground squirrels left unscathed and unhumbled. I called the Chamber of Commerce to ask what kind of ammunition is used in the Squirrel Roundup, hoping to be told that lead is forbidden. They did not return my call.
Another source told me that squirrel hunters use lead. That narrow band of the Surprise Valley must be intensely pocked with the stuff. It probably doesn't hurt squirrels that aren't actually shot.
But birds of prey are gobblers of gravel. Lacking teeth, they grind food in their gizzards, which they stock with little pebbles. They swallow chips of bone, glass, or metal, anything hard that seems to them like it would make cool false teeth. When a hawk finds shot in a carcass, it's like getting take-out Chinese food with free chopsticks. Lead can also flake, tainting a carcass.
Lead poisoning kills an unknown number of raptors every year. Most deaths occur in the wild and aren't reported. But some birds end up in wildlife rescue centers, where the problem is diagnosed. Sometimes it can be successfully treated, sometimes not. (Other birds can get lead poisoning too. Birds of prey simply encounter more due to their gourmet interest in dead bodies.)
Lead poisoning is such a serious problem for California condors that self-supporting birds living wild lives must regularly be captured so blood lead levels can be tested and they can undergo chelation therapy if necessary. Biologists climb up or rappel down to nests to cleanse them of unsalubrious items chicks will swallow. The use of lead shot is banned in an exclusion zone covering about 20% of the state to lessen the amount of lead in condor habitat. The Surprise Valley is not in that zone.
Reader, if this report has inspired you to sign up for next year's Squirrel Roundup, please don't use lead ammunition. Use steel, copper, tungsten, unicorn horn. Lead is cheaper, but you're spending hundreds of dollars to shoot hundreds of squirrels. You can afford it!