When snow fell early and often this winter, the Gastineau Humane Society got ready for the usual spate of calls about mice and other mundane critters that were sure to invade homes.
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The shelter wasn't expecting ermine alerts.
"Interestingly enough, this winter we seem to have had more people than usual calling in and saying they have ermines in their house," executive director Chava Lee said. "I'm not sure why."
Yes, it's winter. And with the light snow cover, that means ermines, weasels and other rodents may be working their way into the warm crawlspaces of your home or apartment in search of food.
What can you do? Well, you can put out a live-trap, snap-trap, poison or glueboard, depending on your situation and whether your home has children and/or pets.
Or, as many do, you can call the Humane Society for advice.
"We don't do wildlife, but people call us about mice, pigeons, squirrels, ermine, bears, seagulls, a lot of animals that don't really fit into the domestic animal category," Lee said. "We try to direct people to the proper place."
Ermine look like white ferrets when they grow their snowy winter coat. They're usually very smart and quick, and they hunt for voles and mice.
"We had a guy in last week who said he tried to catch an ermine, and it was extremely bright," Lee said. "It was able to get all the food and never spring the trap.
"We have an ermine here who was outside the building, and he has no fear of us whatsoever. We've had people who sit outside and watch him because he's actually quite beautiful.
"Here's the interesting thing about ermine: If you have a mice problem and your neighbor has an ermine problem, maybe you can get together and solve each other's problem," Lee said. "Introduce the ermine to your mice."
Alaska Department of Fish & Game has not received many calls this winter about ermine, wildlife management biologist Neil Barten said. Maybe two or three.
"If an ermine is in your house, it might be a good thing," Barten said. "Ermine are pretty tuned into what the voles are doing. They might catch whatever mice are around.
"We had one in the porch two weeks ago," he said. "To be honest with you, when they're in the white (winter) phase, it's pretty cool to be able to see one.
"No one wants one living in their house," he said. "They have to defecate and pee eventually. But you're not going to run after one and catch one. They're pretty quick. If it got in, it's probably going to get out when it decides to leave."
River otters are the most common invasive complaint this time of year at Fish & Game, Barten said.
"If you live along the water, they'll often hang out under the house and use it as a toilet area, which gets a little smelly," he said. "We probably get three calls a day from people who have that problem."
The Mount Roberts Tram had that problem a few years ago, he said. The musky scent of a renegade otter's feces pervaded the area where tickets are sold.
As at the Humane Society, Fish & Game has a few live-traps they can loan out to people.
One important thing to remember is that you need a permit to trap a "game species" like mink, otter or ermine. The Humane Society won't loan out a trap without first confirming that you've consulted with Fish & Game. The process is relatively simple, Barten said.
Pest control services such as Paratex Pied Pier Pest Control - founded 46 years ago in Ketchikan and now with branches around the state - don't get a lot of wildlife calls, owner Ken Lewis said.
"People don't connect pest control with doing anything with wildlife," Lewis said. "People generally tend to call a friend with traps."
Paratex does get quite a few calls about squirrels in the fall and early winter. Occasionally, the company will be asked to catch a bird or mammal.
This winter, mouse activity has been fairly average around the state.
"I've not seen a rise in activity this year," Lewis said. "Generally, we see mice coming in more when it's cold. When you've got a nice blanket of snow, it's warmer down where they're at. They don't move as quickly when we get really cold."
"The funniest thing we hear about mice is the people that call and say, 'Do you have a cat that's a mouser?'" Lee said. "And we laugh, because we have mice, and we've got lots of cats.
"If you remove the food sources, usually you can get rid of the mice," she said.
Last year, Fairbanks had one of its most active vole seasons in recent memory, Lewis said. But Juneau has not seen a similar recent spike, he said.
"The vole activity in Juneau is not extremely high, as far as invasion," Lewis said. "They're more in the northern part of the state. Even here in Anchorage we don't have a lot of problems.
"Shrews also are not common down where you're at, because of the higher humidity. Shrews are insectivores. They tend to go dormant in the winter."
Shrews tend to be more of a problem when they're disturbed, Lewis said. Several years ago, when a junk car lot was cleaned up in Anchorage, a nest of 150 moved en masse into a nearby restaurant.
"I was catching them two on a single snap-trap," he said. "It was amazing."
Lewis prefers glueboards for catching rodents. The sticky boards come in various sizes. They can be laid out flat, folded into a tent or stuck in crannies such as the space beneath stoves.
It's safer than leaving poison around the house. The problem is placing the glueboards where a child can't pick them up or an animal can't get the sticky surface attached to its coat.
"You have to be careful how you use them and where," Lewis said. "But they are better than snap-traps. It's a more positive catch. There's nothing that can accidentally go off, as with any trapping or baiting.
"I'm not a real strong believer in live-traps," he said. "If you leave a mouse in them for a day or more, they're going to die of fright. It's more humane to put them out of their misery on a glueboard. They struggle so much that they get their nose down and they smother."
Korry Keeker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org