They chatter at night and I am positive that I can hear one scratching his ear as clear as day. These squirrels have been living above my kitchen for the past few months. Not just living…living and loving, fighting and cursing at one another, scratching ears and doing jumping jacks. I rent the house, so other than their noise at night, the issue hasn’t kept me up. However, dreams of chewed wires and house fires lead me to contact a pest control company via my landlord.

Talking with my property manager, we had all sorts of wild ideas for evicting the critters. I strongly persuaded him away from poisons and so we discussed more creative strategies. Maybe we could cut a hole in the ceiling? Maybe jam plastic in the presumed entrance from the roof? Maybe pound on the ceiling and watch where they come out? While we were busy focusing on the one area we suspected as their secret door, we were missing their true avenues for a good many weeks. Finally, the pros were brought in and they went to work quickly isolating possible entry points, screening off chewed holes, and setting traps. After a lot of trial and error, we finally honed in on the main entryway and we have solved the problem. If not for the methodic and scientific approach, however, we’d still be focused on the one point that we thought was most likely.

It’s easy to look at a problem and simplify its root causes. However, this sort of tunnel vision can blind us to useful solutions. A perfect example is the problem of nitrates in our waterways. Not only do these nutrients harm some of the wildlife, but the resulting algae blooms can kill fish and make it very costly and dangerous to treat drinking water. A recent headline from Iowa pits the Des Moines Water Works against area farmers in court to stop nitrate contamination in the rivers that supply the city’s drinking water. The focus is the issue of applied fertilizers running into the waterways. However, a recent interview with an expert on sustainable farming revealed that the fertilizer is not the only issue. A bigger issue is bare soil in the cold months. This bare soil leaves nitrate available on the surface and snow and rain can easily wash them away. Contrast this with the growing season in which plants (crops) trap and use the available nitrates and prevent the majority from running into the water. The solution? Utilize cover – crops: crops that grow in the cold months and protect the soil and water. Read more about it here.

Photo from Purdue.edu

In many issues we face as a community, we have to remain open to multiple possibilities and viewpoints. If we focus, for example, only on the amount or techniques used with nitrate fertilizers, we would miss the bigger picture of cover-crop benefits. So, next time someone tells you something like, “You know this issue with _______ is so simple! It just comes down to one thing….blah blah blah” I would be skeptical. It wouldn’t be so controversial if it was simple. Let’s have the tough conversations, let’s see all sides, and let’s find solutions that benefit our whole community, including our neighboring streams, our next door forests, and our backyard rivers.

 

-Rob Hunt, Watershed Center Coordinator

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