BILLINGS - They’re Richardson’s ground squirrels — not prairie dogs — that have burrowed beneath some of the athletic fields at Billings parks, endangering athletes and wreaking havoc with turf conditions.

The Billings Parks and Recreation Department purchased a machine two years ago that sends a sandy slurry into the rodents’ burrows, preventing them from leaving or entering again. Parks Department officials have touted the results, which has improved the playing fields at locations including Stewart Park.

But whatever the rodent in question, Billings City Administrator Tina Volek was ready with a matter-of-fact explanation to an inquiry earlier this week from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Relying on a report supplied to PETA by an unnamed individual, Kent Stein of Virginia, a member of PETA’s emergency response team, wrote to Volek and city council members that the control method being used is inhumane.

Stein offered a few suggestions in his letter, including placing ammonia-soaked rags in burrows or using scare devices, such as a statue of a dog or a fox.

But Volek, after checking with parks staff, said that “our experience has been that ground squirrels create literally thousands of holes once they take over a park. … In one case, we had a family of foxes that lived next to an infested sports field, and even they couldn’t keep up.”

Stewart Park itself, she pointed out, is 54 acres. Billings is home to 2,500 acres of parkland.

After calling Billings “an animal-loving area,” Volek wrote, “We also have a concern, however, for the safety of children and adults who should be able to use athletic areas without excessive fear of injury due to the squirrel dens. We do limit squirrel control to athletic playing fields and the undeveloped areas immediately adjacent to them.”

Stephanie Bell, director of PETA’s Cruelty Investigations Department, said her organization weighs in when it becomes aware of control methods being used “when there are nonlethal resources available.”

“We were told that they drown in their burrows, and that is condemned by the American Veterinary Medical Association,” she said. “It’s a terrifying and prolonged way to die.”

The city’s chosen strategy could backfire, she said, because a resulting spike in the ground squirrels’ food supply — grass — could accelerate breeding among the rodents.

It’s critical, she said, that intervention occur during the spring, and not all summer long. “The timing of this,” she said, “is something we hope (the city) will look at.”

From PETA’s point of view, effective ground squirrel control includes excluding them from the areas where their burrows are causing problems, deterrence and a curtailment of their food sources, Bell said.

Parks Director Michael Whitaker said in an email that he’s “very pleased with the success we have had over the past two years with the burrow blocker,” the machine used to control the ground squirrels in city parks. “This has been a safe and environmentally friendly solution to our ground squirrel problem on athletic fields.”

PETA will keep an eye on Billings’ control methods moving forward, Bell said.

“We receive hundreds of reports every year about animals being killed for cruel reasons,” she said. “There are often less cruel alternatives available.”

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