Santa Barbara News Press

Gopher Problems: Student Injuries Spur School District to Prepare for Assault on Critters

Talisa Hail was trying out for the San Marcos High School soccer team last year when she became a victim of the school’s gopher-hole minefield.

She stepped in a hole, blew out a knee and wound up on the operating table. While the team went on to win the Southern California championship this season, the sophomore was in rehab, tearfully learning how to walk again.

As the ground squirrels and gophers have multiplied, so have stories like hers.

Two student athletes who were injured by gopher holes. NEWS-PRESS PHOTOGRAPHY
Two student athletes who were injured by gopher holes. NEWS-PRESS PHOTOGRAPHY

Now, the Santa Barbara school district is upping the ante, leaving behind its pesticide-free approach and unleashing chemicals.

On April 3 and 7, employees with local contractor Agri-Turf Supplies will be lighting smoke cartridges and stuffing them into holes to bring relief to a school besieged by vermin.

“Those fields will be safe,” said Abe Jahadhmy, the school’s athletic director. “They’re going to use the pesticides, then the next step is to level (the fields) out.”

School officials say they have exhausted their other pesticide-free options, such as trapping and using tractors to fill holes, and are moving to the next-least-toxic method.

They say they will not resort to so-called fumatoxins, one of the most dangerous forms of pest control.

“I think the fumatoxin days are long gone,” school facilities director David Hetyonk said. “It’s not even under consideration.”

However, if the current method doesn’t work, Mr. Hetyonk may ask the school board to approve stronger weapons, such as diphacinone, an odorless yellow powder that causes fatal internal hemorrhaging in rodents.

In adult humans, it can cause nausea, and the Children’s Health Environmental Coalition argues that it can cause birth defects. Diphacinone was among the solutions recommended by the school’s integrated pest management committee.

Even though it is generally agreed that the risk posed by the smoke cartridges is minimal, the issue underscores the tricky balancing act school officials must keep in mind when addressing pests — especially in an area known for its cutting-edge anti-pesticide policies.

Ground squirrels and gophers have multiplied on the campus at San Marcos High School. NEWS-PRESS PHOTOGRAPHY
Ground squirrels and gophers have multiplied on the campus at San Marcos High School. NEWS-PRESS PHOTOGRAPHY

On one hand, using pesticides can expose kids and others to harmful chemicals. But refraining from using them when the pest population is proliferating brings its own set of risks, officials said.

Called the Giant Destroyer, the smoke cartridges that won the school board’s approval Tuesday night contain potassium nitrate and sulphur, two key ingredients of gunpowder.

“Have you ever lit a smoke bomb? That’s exactly what it looks like,” said Agri-Turf representative Robert Muraoka, who noted that his company has never used this method before — it normally uses fumatoxins.

Mr. Muraoka said the smoke cartridges are only harmful when the victim is enclosed in a small space, much as smoke from a house fire or carbon monoxide from a car can be. “Cars spew out carbon monoxide all the time, don’t they, but you don’t see people keeling over in the street.”

The Santa Barbara school district has an integrated pest management policy, a step away from a full-blown ban on pesticides.

Under the district’s policy, maintenance workers first must try nontoxic methods to kill squirrels, gophers, bees and other pests. When those methods fail, they must receive permission from the school board to use pesticides — the least toxic first. If approval is granted, a letter detailing the pesticide of choice and date of application is sent to every parent at the school.

This school year, the schools have had to resort to pesticides two other times — both because bees had nested in inaccessible areas: the red-tile roofing at La Cumbre Junior High School and a masonry wall near a ball field at San Marcos.

Injured student athletes say the latest measures have been a long time in coming.

San Marcos High softball player Lauren Brous was fielding a ground ball when the ball took a bum hop off a hole and struck her on the mouth.

“My lips were blown up for like four or five days,” she told the school board Tuesday night.

Said her father, Greg Brous, in a letter to the school dated Feb. 6: “Luckily, she did not lose any teeth, or this letter would be from my lawyer.”

Football player Michael Torres was running laps during spring training two weeks ago when he tripped over a hole and broke his foot. Now, he’s on crutches.

“It’s in a part of the foot where there’s not much circulation, so there’s a good chance it may not heal correctly,” said the linebacker. That means surgery is a strong possibility, he said.

Underground critter catacombs aren’t the only problem. Teachers say ground squirrels have been running amok in their classrooms.

One is so familiar he’s been named.

“Petie is very bold and will run up to my feet when I am working at my desk. He jumps into the trash can and even leapt onto my podium table,” English teacher Cara Gamberdella wrote to school administrators. “He sometimes brings a friend (we haven’t named him yet).”

Teacher Helen Murdoch wrote on Nov. 30: “I worry that the squirrels might bite a student or destroy classroom property. They also come out while the students are eating lunch and are getting braver each month.”

Pesticide watcher Eric Cardenas, spokesman for the local nonprofit environmental law firm Environmental Defense Center, applauded the district’s use of smoke cartridges.

“We like to promote doing the least toxic thing first,” he said.

But he warned against using diphacinone, primarily because evidence suggests it also kills carcass-eating animals, such as raptors. As an alternative possible next step, he recommended using another method that was also endorsed by the committee: the nontoxic Rode-trol, a dry, corn-based pesticide that expands in the belly of the beast.

In addition to consulting the committee, district officials sought the advice of a renowned pest-management guru, Phil Boise of the Gaviota-based nonprofit group Urban-Ag Ecology, who recommended the smoke bombs.

“I believe the risk of these smoke cartridges is assumed exclusively by the applicator,” he wrote in a letter to the district. “In my experience, the smoke remains in the runs for no more than 15 minutes, and I haven’t seen it travel more than 20 to 25 feet.”

As for Talisa, her surgery required replacing her torn ligament with one from a dead person. She also has a screw in her knee. Still, she’s optimistic that she’ll play next year and has been playing well in her springtime club league.

“It was heartbreaking because soccer has really shaped me as a person,” she said of her involuntary hiatus. “It’s been my first everything: first love, first heartbreak, first commitment. . . . I’m not sure what the gassing will do. I hope it does great things.”