When a skunk goes after your garden

By RIchard Rubin

Skunks love autumn as our backyard gardens fill up with ripe vegetables. But in my northern New Mexico corn patch, that meant a determined skunk chowing down on ears of corn every night. What followed next was a conundrum: I wanted it gone but didn’t know how to make that happen.

My initial attempt, spreading coyote-urine crystals from the hardware store, failed to repel the raids. Then a Norteno gardener friend advised hanging mothballs in bags on the fence. Nope, no effect.

My plumber friend said he got rid of a big skunk family that took up residence under his mother’s house by borrowing a trap from the county’s agriculture extension agent. He used cat food as bait—but all he caught was cats. Switching to fresh eggshells, he said he caught the entire skunk family, one striped marauder at a time.

A farmer neighbor’s advice was similar: “Get a Havahart trap.” I got one and the skunk ended up inside, but then what?

I called Taos County Animal Control. The agent said they don’t handle skunks and gave me two options: a private critter-control outfit or dropping it off myself “somewhere in the mountains.” And oh yes, be sure to cover the trap with a tarp when you approach to block possible spray, and minimize alarming the animal because you know why.

Not wanting to release the skunk in the yard where it might spray my dogs, I recruited an agile friend to carry the cage about 400 yards away to a fallow field protected by a conservation easement. The corn-chomper was back the next night.

Then I read on the Havahart company website that skunks should be released at least 10 miles away. Somebody said that skunks had been dumped west of me across the Rio Grande Gorge, in an area colloquially known as otra banda, a mix of private and public land.

This turned out to be a terrible idea. When I floated that alternative with a Facebook Taos Farm and Garden group, I quickly learned that dumping a skunk across the gorge was anything but welcome. “Not near my backyard!” was the reaction.

The idea of dumping the skunk also led to accusations of animal cruelty because I’d be removing the animal “from his family and home range.” A few people had an easy solution, though not one I liked: “Just shoot it.”

What seemed doable was that early suggestion to drop off the skunk “somewhere” in the mountains, and I knew of some Bureau of Land Management land that included a National Conservation Area for wildlife. 

But first I called the Taos BLM office to check. The clerk commiserated with my garden losses, said they have no policy on this issue, and directed me to the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish. The main office in Santa Fe verified that trapping a skunk was legal on my own property and referred me to the local Taos game wardens.

They said because skunks aren’t regulated as “non-game animals,” they could be moved to public lands where the BLM and the Forest Service have no restrictions on freeing trapped skunks. A solution at last.

So, wrapping the cage in a tarp, I drove the skunk 10 miles away to its new home, gave it time to adjust, and then opened the trap door. Out it bolted, taking off at a fast waddle across the sagebrush field. I hoped to never see it—or any member of its family—again.

Out of an abundance of caution, though, I set the trap again, because skunks are often seen at night traveling along the dry acequias (irrigation ditches), in my neighborhood. I learned that skunks have competitors for sardine bait—this one a tabby housecat without a collar.

I let the cat go, and a week later, we’re eating corn without competition. Our trap still sits in the corn patch, unbaited but ready, just in case, though I know what to do now: Que sera, sera.

Richard Rubin is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He writes in Arroyo Seco, New Mexico, where he’s a volunteer steward of the historic Aldo and Estella Leopold house, managed by the Forest Service.

Bryan Padron via Unsplash

This column was published in the following newspapers:

10/16/2023 Rock Springs Rocket Miner Rock Springs WY
10/17/2023 Lake Powell Chronicle Page AZ
10/17/2023 Four Points Press Garryowen MT
10/17/2023 Craig Daily Press Craig co
10/17/2023 Taos News Taos NM
10/17/2023 Steamboat Pilot Steamboat Springs CO
10/18/2023 Montrose Daily Press Montrose CO
10/18/2023 Hungry Horse News Columbia Falls MT
10/18/2023 Aspen Daily News Aspen CO
10/18/2023 Wenatchee World Wenatchee WA
10/19/2023 Boulder Weekly Boulder CO
10/23/2023 Durango Herald Durango CO
10/23/2023 Glenwood Post Independent Glenwood Springs CO
10/21/2023 Carlsbad Current-Argus Carsbad NM
10/21/2023 Ruidoso Daily News Ruidoso New Mexico
10/21/2023 Farmington Daily Times Farmington NM
10/21/2023 Yahoo sunnyvale ca
10/27/2023 Bandon Western World Bandon OR
10/27/2023 Del Norte Triplicate Crescent City CA
10/29/2023 Sierra Vista Herald Sierra Vista AZ
11/08/2023 Colorado Free Press Denver CO
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Martha Kennedy
8 months ago

I had one who — with its companion, an opossum — shared my cats’ food on the veranda of my house in San Diego. We named them Fragrant and Vagrant. They were no trouble at all. BUT up in the mountains east of the city where I later lived, a couple of my dogs got sprayed. It was so pervasive that even the backpack I carried to school smelled. “Teacher? Were you skunked?” Beautiful day pack ended up in the trash. One skunk story naturally leads to another.

Bob Guthmiller
8 months ago

Bryan, I loved our article. Growing up in the rural Midwest skunks were certainly part of our environment. Never got too close of course. Here in Denver a few years ago a family member let their dog roam in their backyard during the day while they were at work. A skunk encounter ensued and the poor dog immediately ran inside through the dog door. It climbed on and rubbed on pretty much every piece of furniture it could find. Despite the best efforts of a company to neutralize the smell they ended up tossing all the furniture. Their middle school son got sent home from school the next day as well…the odor was overwhelming the entire school.

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