Dave Salys describes his business, Big Sky Wildlife Control Services, as “one of a kind.”
That comes as little surprise because few of us relish the thought of skunks in the basement, bats in the attic or snakes slithering through the duct system.
But for Salys, those situations just come with the job.
“It’s just a real smorgasbord of varmints,” he said, grinning. “And every job is different from the last.”
In the Billings area, Salys is the go-to guy when ground squirrels infest your lawn, a porcupine makes camp in your tree or flickers peck their way into your attic. Not only will he remove unwelcome wild animals, including road-killed deer and antelope that have wandered onto private property, but he will also haul deceased pets, like the potbelly pig he delivered to the crematorium. He draws the line at bugs and, due to state regulations, cannot trap problem bears or mountain lions. Just about everything else is fair game.
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“I’m a soft salesman,” he said. “Whatever you like, I’ll take care of it, or I can set it up and let you.”
Salys is one of only six wildlife control operators in the state and one of only four Montanans certified by the National Wildlife Control Operators Association.
“We are also heavily insured as a business, which people need to keep in mind if they try to get it done for free by hiring an uninsured hobby trapper,” he said. “What happens if a situation arises?”
Rummaging through his shed, Salys pulls out traps and devices he uses in his trade. Besides just about every size trap imaginable, he’s got a fiber optic scope for probing into holes and he’s got a trail cam to remotely view whatever critter is passing by. The ropes hanging on the wall come in handy for just about anything, like the time he
lowered himself over a cliff to set a trap for a porcupine. The odd, triangle-shaped wood frames are his own inventions. “Snake guides” he calls them. When set with the point of the triangle pressed against a wall, the frame funnels the snake into a glue trap inside.
No slithering allowed
While most of us squirm at the mention of snakes, Salys takes them in stride.
“I’ve caught 50 to 60 in a yard this size,” he said, referring to his suburban backyard.
As snake stories go, Salys tells of fielding a call from a frantic woman who swore she’d seen an exotic snake emerge from a bunch of bananas she’d just purchased. In a flash the snake dove under the stove, she told him. When Salys arrived on the scene, he found no sign of a snake but a large yellow rubber band where the snake should have been. He was convinced it was a case of illusion. But the distraught caller?
“I couldn’t convince her,” he said.
Though Salys harbors no revulsion for snakes, he’s adamant that they don’t belong in the home. And when headlines recently featured an Idaho house infested by snakes, Salys said the image seemed all too familiar because he’s dealt with similar situations.
“I actually got calls from that article,” he said.
Salys’ interest in trapping traces back to his childhood in Indiana. Describing himself as the kid who was no good at sports, he turned instead to hunting, trapping and fishing.
Later on, after moving to Billings, he approached Fish, Wildlife and Parks about his business proposal. Since no one else in the area had filled the niche, they told him they would send calls his way.
Eleven years later, business is brisk and he typically spends 40 to 60 hours a week at it, squeezed around his full-time day job at Werts Welding in Billings.
Working on a seasonal cycle, the ebb of winter surges in early spring, as animals become more active. About now, Salys begins fielding calls about ground squirrels (often referred to as gophers). Before long, skunk complaints will escalate as the mephitids enter their mating season.
Salys’ claim to fame is odor-free skunk removal. To maintain his motto, he uses special, enclosed traps, combined with his acquired understanding of skunk behavior. As for himself, he says all bets are off.
“There are two kinds of guys in this business: those who have been sprayed and those who will be sprayed,” he said, chuckling. “I’m in the will-be-sprayed category. My time is coming.”
He tells of one skunk call that came in at 2 a.m., when a Billings family returned home to discover a door had been left open and an opportunistic skunk had accepted the invitation. Crawling on his hands and knees, Salys eventually located the culprit under the hot water heater. He was able to coax the skunk out, using a method he declines to share.
“That’s a trade secret,” he said, smiling. “Not to sound silly, but I talk to the animals. I get them relaxed. I get them to go where I want them to go.”
Yet when asked what attributes help him most in his business, he talks not of animals but of his career with Werts Welding.
“I think having worked in retail for 20 to 30 years, I can talk to people,” he said. “Dealing with people — explaining things to them, assuring them — is sometimes more than dealing with the animals.”
Being adaptable is another necessity. Whether ridding a summer cabin of pack rats or trapping beaver, Salys’ work frequently takes him miles from home, and miles from the nearest hardware store.
“If I have to fix or build something, it has to come out of the back of my pickup,” he said.
Making the right call
Likewise, he adapts each solution to the unique situation. In many instances he uses live traps but that doesn’t mean he won’t euthanize what he catches inside. Above all, he will not relocate skunks. Because they are common carriers of rabies, he’s not taking any chances. Besides, he adds, relocating wildlife is not only illegal, it’s inhumane to the animal.
“You’ve now dropped it in unfamiliar territory where it has no known food source or shelter and will probably become road kill trying to return to its previous home range,” he explains. “That animal, if it survives, is also likely to become someone else’s problem since it’s habituated to people and homes.”
As Salys digs through the freezer in his shed he picks through bags labeled “raccoon” and “pack rat.” Then he holds up a rattlesnake frozen into an “S” curve. He takes pride in knowing that he does his best to utilize the animals he captures. Beavers are skinned, skunks go to individuals who extract their musk and porcupines are used by a client who makes Native American ceremonial articles.
“These animals don’t go to waste,” he said.