Skunky stink to stave off thieves

Since the University began applying skunk scent, fewer trees have been stolen.

by Yelena Kibasova

The University has found a clever way to put a stink in tree poachers’ holiday plans.

Before 2003, the campus grounds lost seven to 15 trees a year to theft. That’s when the University started spraying its trees with skunk scent to deter thieves during the Christmas season.

Poachers in past years cut the trees off at the trunk or climbed large trees and cut off the tops, said Jenn Rowe, communications specialist at the Facilities Management Department.

Thieves stole trees such as evergreens and pines; anything that resembled a Christmas tree, she said.

The idea came from University Facilities Management operations supervisor Jim Blake.

Blake had been losing trees on his personal property and decided to cover his trees with skunk scent.

“Trappers use it and hunters use it; they put it on their boots. It smells really bad,” Blake said.

After learning that the University was dealing with a similar issue, Blake proposed the use of the skunk scent on campus because it worked well for him.

Since 2003, the University has lost fewer trees.

“Last year, we might have lost one. It was kind of off campus in the Como and 29th area,” said grounds superintendent Les Potts.

The skunk scent was purchased from a Virginia trapping store and Facilities Management staff members apply it each year with tank sprayers after the rainy season is over.

They apply it during dry season so it doesn’t wipe off. When the winter season ends, the spring rain washes the scent off, Potts said.

The cost of the scent is comparatively low compared with the cost of losing the trees.

“The cost of the trees that we were losing was in the thousands of dollars,” Rowe said. “It was under $50 to get the scent to spray the trees, so they thought, Let’s try it.”

Some of the trees that were cut down were more than 15 years old.

“The trees were 16 or 17 feet high and then they go cut out the top 6 to 7 feet of it,” Potts said. “You’re looking at a tree that’s valued over $1,000 and they just ruined it.”

Some students are curious as to how the spray would actually deter thieves.

“If people don’t know … they still might want to cut off the tops anyway,” said Andrea Dierich, forest resources and classical civilizations junior.

Facilities Management makes an effort each year to contact the media.

“We publicize it every year, so people will know. Everyone knows what a skunk smell is like; it takes forever to get rid of that,” Rowe said.

The skunk smell is sprayed on the top of the trees. In the cold weather, the skunk smell is not detectable, Potts said.

“You usually can’t smell it outdoors, but once you get it inside and it warms up, you’re usually done for,” said Josh Muchow, a student gardener for Facilities Management and a forest resources senior.

The University plans to continue spraying 400 to 500 trees each year, Potts said.