MOUNT DESERT ISLAND — “The towns of Bar Harbor and Mount Desert have had more skunks this year than they’ve had tourists,” said Norm Closson, an animal damage control agent who lives in Tremont.
OK, that’s probably an exaggeration, but you get the idea.
Parts of Mount Desert Island, particularly some neighborhoods in Bar Harbor, saw an unusually heavy proliferation of the small, striped critters this summer and early fall.
Lawns have been damaged by skunks digging for grubs, and more than a few dogs that have gotten too close have been sprayed.
Closson and Tony Preston-Schreck, an animal damage control agent in Bar Harbor, said skunks, like many other wild animals, go through natural population boom-and-bust cycles.
“This is definitely one of the accelerated booms,” Preston-Schreck said. “There have been a lot of people complaining about skunks.”
Ann Rivers of Acadia Wildlife Foundation, who cares for and rehabilitates injured and orphaned animals, said she isn’t sure there are more skunks than usual overall on MDI.
“But I’ve gotten a lot of calls, mostly from people in Bar Harbor, saying, ‘They’re everywhere and they shouldn’t be here; they don’t belong here; they’ve got to go,” Rivers said. “Well, they should be there because that’s where they find food. It’s a great habitat for them. They’re a very suburban animal.”
Skunks are omnivores. They will eat pretty much anything, from grubs and insects to berries and nuts and household garbage.
Rivers said that, like most wild animals, skunks don’t seek conflict.
“It’s not like they run after you trying to spray you,” she said. “It’s their last resort. They’re really docile and they give every opportunity for somebody to walk away from them or walk around them.
“The only time skunks spray when they’re not being attacked,” she continued, “is when they are babies and they’re practicing.”
Baby skunks are born in May or early June and, by August, they are starting to venture out to find their own territories.
Rivers said it’s understandable that people don’t want skunks living under their porch or garage. So, often, they call someone like Closson or Preston-Schreck.
“We trap them and relocate them,” Closson said. “It takes a lot of finesse. You’ve got to go easy and slow and cover the cages.
“I try not to take them out of the town where I’m catching them because I don’t want to cause a problem somewhere else.”
To protect against the spread of rabies, Maine law prohibits animals from being released more than five miles from where they are caught.
Closson said he got a call this summer from a resident of Hancock Street in Bar Harbor who had a family of skunks under her house.
“There were three babies that had just crawled out. They didn’t even have their eyes open,” he said. “It made me feel good that I could get them out of there and take them to Ann Rivers so she could try to help them,” he said.
Preston-Schreck said he traps and relocates skunks and other so-called nuisance animals as a last resort. Depending on the species and the season, he said, “Mortality rates can be as high as 98 percent for relocated animals. I try not to trap at all.”
Rivers agreed, saying, “If you trap and move an animal, it’s not likely to live through it, and it’s going to open up the territory for another one.”
Preston-Schreck said that at least 90 percent of the calls he gets are the result of structural problems that allow skunks and other animals access to buildings. He said close observation by the homeowner often leads to a no-trap, no-harm solution.
“Right now, skunks are foraging for food to build up their fat stores, and they’ll have a number of dens they will frequent over the next several months,” Preston-Schreck said. “Under your garage may be one of half a dozen stops they’re making.
“Through observation you can identify what’s there, when it’s there and how it’s getting in. Once you’re sure it’s not inside, you can seal up the opening.”
If you’re not sure whether the animal is in or out or if you can’t immediately create a permanent barrier, Rivers suggests a one-way door as a temporary solution.
“You can take a piece of sheet metal and put a strip of duct tape on the top and then stick it on the outside of the hole,” she said. “The animal can push on it from the inside and get out, but then it flaps down and they can’t get back in. Then you just leave them alone so they can go somewhere else.”
For large openings, Rivers and Preston-Schreck said something like a chicken wire barrier can be effective. But again, if it’s unclear whether the animal is in or out, there needs to be an escape hatch.
Preston-Schreck said the reason he gets more calls about skunks from people in more heavily populated areas is not just because that’s the environment the animals prefer.
“People who live outside of town are generally not interested in calling somebody like me because they can take care of business themselves,” he said. “That’s the nature of Mainers; they’re self-sufficient.”
Closson said there don’t seem to have been as many skunk-human conflicts in Southwest Harbor and Tremont as in the other MDI towns.
“But it’s getting there,” he said. “I’ve gotten more calls from over this way. More people have been complaining about them.”