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  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e  May 2011


Wild Kingdom

Wildlife rescuer and wrangler Dennis Miller tries to balance the needs of humans and the animals around us.

by Harry Williamson

 

 

It's always good to hang a hummingbird feeder. Right?

I'm cutting down a tree on my land. Okay?

A coatimundi just stole my lunch. Help!



You can go to a mechanic if your car coughs, call a plumber when your house leaks, but who is handy for issues such as these, or a whole gamut of others on your daily dealings with nature and wildlife?

Miller 1
Dennis Miller holds an injured raven, which was trapped while on a job with his Gila Biological Consulting service, and then successfully treated and released by Gila Wildlife Rescue, a non-profit business he operates along with his wife Denise. (Photo by Harry Williamson)

"My job is not to do everything just for the wildlife, and not just for the humans who live here, but to find a balance where both are happy. That's where I can come in and help make it happen," says Dennis Miller.

Miller is well known for 33 years of saving wildlife with his Gila Wildlife Rescue and 29 years of teaching biology at the Silver City high school and at Western New Mexico University. Plus he's about as local as a Grant County resident can be: His grandfather, Bill Mullane, was the longtime publisher of the Silver City Enterprise newspaper, and his father, Robert Miller, preceded him as head of the university's biology department.

Retiring from the university in 2008, Dennis Miller has launched Gila Biological Consulting, capturing and removing nuisance animals, along with answering questions and assisting people as they "attempt to live in harmony with nature." These services are available to individuals and businesses throughout Southwest New Mexico.

His Gila Wildlife Rescue, a non-profit 501(c)3 organization, depends on public donations. It has been strongly supported by Freeport McMoRan Copper & Gold, by many other individuals and organizations, and by Dr. John Wenzel at Arenas Valley Animal Clinic.

Miller operates both endeavors with his wife Denise, who is also an outstanding wildlife photographer.


As for those three wildlife quandaries, Miller says that while birds are the single segment of wildlife that it's not harmful for humans to feed, he does wonder whether too many hummingbird feeders might have a negative impact on the surrounding natural world.

Miller 2
Demonstrating how he uses one of his nets, Dennis Miller tries to treat, if needed, and then releases the wildlife he catches.
(Photo by Harry Williamson)

"Are all of the hummingbird feeders out there depleting the number of red flowers whose nectar feeds not only hummingbirds, but also a number of wildlife who eat those plants, with a resulting impact on the food chain?" he says. "Instead of putting 12 hummingbird feeders out, why not put out one and then 11 red flowering plants that are natural and have just as many hummingbirds, if not more."

For a good flowering plant in Grant County, Miller recommends salvias, a group of native sages, many with red flowers. "They are beautiful, with blooms most of the spring, summer and fall. They just attract hummingbirds like crazy, and deer don't usually eat them," he says. "That's the kind of strategy I'm trying to encourage, more natural things."

One example of a local salvia, featured in the book Landscaping with Native Plants of the Southwest by George Oxford Miller, is Salvia greggii, commonly called autumn sage or cherry sage, which is a Chihuahuan Desert native. The book lists a total of 13 native flowering plants and 21 trees, shrubs and vines that attract hummingbirds.

On question two, Miller says the one instance where it is not okay to cut down a tree on your land is when it houses a nest inhabited by actively breeding native birds.

"Under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, if you cut down a tree that, say, has a woodpecker nesting in it, you have just committed a federal crime," he explains. "You can wait until the bird migrates off, or if you feel you have to cut it down now, we can see if we can get written permission from the US Fish & Wildlife Service to remove those babies out of the nest."

If the permit is approved, the effort switches over to Miller's Gila Wildlife Rescue, where he will raise the baby woodpeckers and then put them back in the wild.

Coatimundi trying to take people's lunches was an actual incident where Miller was called to the mines at Freeport McMoRan because the animals were "challenging some workers over their food." The trapping side of his business started several years ago when, sparked by rabies concerns, the mines asked him to trap skunks, feral cats and ringtails (like coatis, a relative of raccoons). He has also done some breeding-bird surveys for the mines.


"Being a wildlife rehabilitator for more than 30 years has given me a lot of skills on how to capture and remove wildlife," Miller says. "People can be sure I'll be humane, releasing the animals into a suitable environment whenever possible." He uses a wide array of wire and enclosed cages, capture nets and catch sticks, never any poisons.

"I've been using these for many, many years and I've gotten very good at it," he says. "I go to every length I can to find a solution that doesn't involve killing the animal, if there is a way to catch and release."

Some animals, such as gophers, however, can only be caught by putting so-called "snap traps," in their tunnels, which kills them. He adds that animals showing a certain set of behaviors indicating rabies or distemper are euthanized humanely.

Other recent animal nuisance calls to Gila Wildlife Consulting include some domestic turkeys escaped from a property near Bayard. A real-estate company called Miller to Lordsburg for what was thought to be a badger living under a rental house. It actually turned out to be the old signs of a ringtail. A woman in Tyrone called about feral cats, and a local cemetery had a major gopher problem.

"Gophers were popping up in the middle of graves," Miller says. "I caught 61 in a week."

He also trapped gophers at Bill Evans Lake dam, on the west side where engineers were concerned the tunneling would cause water leaks. In the past few weeks, he has trapped skunks at several locations, along with some chipmunks living inside an attic in Hanover.

Miller has five different permits to capture and house wildlife, including a nuisance-animal trapping permit, which requires a pre-exposure rabies vaccination. He is one of only two wildlife rehabilitators in New Mexico who are licensed for all wildlife.

Miller 3
Dennis and Denise Miller hold an eagle that had been nursed back to health at their Gila Wildlife Rescue, minutes before it is released back into the wild. (Photo by Mary Alice Murphy)

Along with the trapping, Miller also helps homeowners stop the problem so the nuisance animals won't just return. He says, "I don't want to keep coming back to the same house year after year catching skunks, when they can do something simple like block a hole so they won't need my services any more."

He adds that when he speaks to neighborhood associations he often tells them they don't have a skunk problem—they have a people problem.

"Animals that are causing a problem have been attracted to humans and human communities artificially," Miller explains. "Skunks are coming into a neighborhood because there is food to eat, such as garbage and dog and cat food being left outside."

Dry dog food, he says, is one of the best attractors for skunks. "It's what I use in traps more than anything else. Sometimes I just use dog food and catch skunks without anything else."

Incidentally, for dogs that are sprayed by a skunk, he recommends what he calls the "skunk formula," a mixture of a bottle of hydrogen peroxide, a quarter-cup of baking soda, and a teaspoon of any dishwashing soap.

"A biochemist figured out a way to use common household products to completely break down the chemicals of that smell rather than just covering it up," Miller says. "It works so good, if you still smell it, you missed a spot."

He adds that all people get when they wash their dog in tomato juice "is an orange dog that stinks."


Although Miller is good at catching nuisance animals, charges a very reasonable fee and tries to prevent future problems, he doesn't want his service to end there. He believes that with his extensive knowledge of animals and their behavior, he can do much more for people than simple mouse killing and skunk removal.

Miller 4
Dennis and Denise Miller care for an average of 200 to 300 wild animals each year at their Gila Wildlife Rescue, including these baby raccoons. (Photo by Denise Miller)

"My knowledge and experience in wildlife rescue and my training as an environmental biologist have given me a very unique set of credentials that most people don't have," Miller says. "I would like to see people in our community become more aware and more knowledgeable about living in harmony with our natural world."

He adds that the general area around Silver City is one of the most biologically diverse areas in North America. "It supports an incredible variety of plants and wildlife, primarily due to its diversity of habitats, and the lack of widespread damage done by humans that has happened in other places."

Miller believes that Silver City and Southwest New Mexico are already more environmentally minded now than in the past. In part this belief is founded on an increase in the number of injured animals treated at Gila Wildlife Rescue annually, from an average of less than 50 in the early years to 200 to 300 now.

"I'm often asked why this increase has happened, and the factor I see is the type of people who lived here while I was growing up were more likely to simply shoot an animal," he says. "The population number is relatively unchanged; only the type of people who stayed here or the new transplants want to help and do things that are good for nature."


But this increased interaction between humans and wildlife is not always positive—especially when people believe they are doing the right thing, but it's actually harmful.

"I think many times humans, whether by accident or purposeful, interact in a negative way with the living world around them, such as by feeding deer," Miller says. "They think they're really cool because they're taking care of wildlife, but they're doing a very damaging thing to deer populations for several reasons."

First, a deer's digestive system has been designed to eat natural foods, which change throughout the seasons, so their digestive enzymes also change. "When people provide them the same food year around, it might be very nutritious part of the year, and a very poor nutritious food the rest of the year."

Second, the feeding attracts deer from other areas, depleting natural foods and causing overpopulation when compared to what nature provides. "For example, we now have very malnourished deer in the Indian Hills area north of Silver City. The Game and Fish and the Forest Service people are trying to make some decisions on how to reduce the number of deer for their own good. This is totally a people-caused problem."

These large deer populations also increase auto accidents, Miller says. In Pennsylvania alone, he notes, more deer are killed each year by being hit by vehicles than are taken by hunters throughout the United States.

Third, all wild animals need a healthy fear of man, for the well-being of both. "The feeding acclimates the deer to humans, the idea that all humans are nice and will give them food, but that's not always true," he says. "I've known of situations in Silver City where a person walks up to a deer and slits its throat because it's no longer afraid of people. They poach the deer that way."

And lastly, as Miller points out, when you attract all that prey, the predators, such as mountain lions, will eventually follow.


My own wildlife question for Miller comes after-the-fact, when I had already done the damage on my small piece of land in the Arenas Valley. Shortly after buying my house almost two years ago, I decided to clear the brush and small trees on a small hillside to improve access and the view. A few days later, a visitor asked me where all of my birds had gone.

Miller says, "A lot of those birds people want to see on their feeders—the juncos and other sparrows, the ruby-crown kinglets and nuthatches and things like that—come in from the ground to the waist-high stuff. That's what you took out here."

He suggests that I could have created pathways on the hillside, leaving islands of cover for the birds. Grabbing some branches of juniper and oak, he shows me how to stack cover at various heights around my two bird feeders.

Picking up some of my birdseed, he says primarily birds would eat the millet and the uncracked sunflower seeds, but the cracked corn could easily attract deer and javelinas. I mumble I didn't want "any of those damn javelinas," recalling a time when one had repeatedly charged when I was on a hike with my two leashed beagles. The brave dog went toward the wild-eyed animal and the smart dog pulled in the other direction, with me caught in the middle with a pounding heart.

"When people want to attract wildlife, they can't very easily control exactly what kind of wildlife is going to come in," Miller says.

When I tell him my javelina story, he says that the animals have "an awesome skull," two angled tusks that rub against and sharpen each other every time they open their mouths.

"I only know of one person who was actually injured by one, an old rancher who was trying to rope it had his leg slashed. But I've seen people chased, and local veterinarians have had to sew up a lot of dogs," Miller says.

He also gives me advice on how I might reduce the number of birds slamming into the windows on the front of my house. I had spools of ribbon hanging from the top of each window, but last year seven or eight birds still flew into the glass, breaking their necks.

"It doesn't always work, but you could put the silhouettes of a bird-of-prey in the corner of each window," he says. "A bird will see it and sometimes veer off to the side before they strike the glass."

As we are walking back to the house I mention it seems like all of my scrub oaks are dying.

"You know that they lose their leaves in the spring?" Miller asks.

I nod sagely.

Why, of course, I knew that. Everybody knows that.

 

You can reach Gila Wildlife Rescue and Gila Biological Consulting at (575) 590-0118 or email millerd@wnmu.edu. Along with the services described above, Miller also does biological inventories, endangered-species studies and bird surveys for landowners who would like to know the type and number of birds currently on their land. He has been doing fish surveys for the Forest Service for more than 15 years, and is considered a leading expert on Loach Minnow and Spikedace endangered fish.

 

 

Harry Williamson moved to Grant County almost two years ago after reporting and editing for newspapers in New York, Oklahoma, Colorado and Texas. Feel free to contact him with comments and story ideas at editorharrydad5@gmail.com.



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