Gentleman Dave Small, natural resources and groundhogs

July 3, 2014

Baltimore Orioles Hall of Fame announcer Chuck Thompson enjoyed getting to know the players he was talking about during live radio broadcasts. He appreciated their prowess as athletes, but he also appreciated their personalities, their work in the community and their activities in the off-season. When he found a player he was particularly fond of, Chuck would often describe him as “a gentleman on and off the field.”

I feel the same way about David Small. Dave has served for years as deputy secretary for the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. When Collin O’Mara announced he was departing the secretary’s position to take the executive directorship of the National Wildlife Federation, Gov. Jack Markell nominated Dave for the top position. He’s been in the trenches for years, learning how the agency works, getting to know the players on both sides of the issues, always working patiently toward sensible resolutions. He’s an excellent choice for the top post.

Dave and his wife, Cindy, live in Dover with their family. Previously they lived in Lewes. Many of us in the Cape Gazette hallways worked with Dave and Cindy when they were journalists with the Whale and the Coast Press. At Sunday’s ferry dedication, Dave told me his journalism skills - gathering information, assessing it, and presenting it in written reports - have been key to his work with DNREC. Cindy also uses those skills in her position as director of Kent County Tourism.

Dave said the state’s lawmakers have confirmed him for the new position. “All I’m waiting on now is to be sworn in,” he said. O’Mara starts his new position this month, so the swearing-in will be happening soon. We look forward to working with him as he digs into important issues like the Allen Harim chicken plant proposal for the former Vlasic pickle plant and the pending permit for Rehoboth Beach’s proposed wastewater outfall.

Groundhog season

“The woodchuck or groundhog may be hunted, trapped, caught, shot, killed, sold, shipped or otherwise disposed of, by any person and at any time.” This quote from Delaware law about sums it up when it comes to Delawareans’ regard for groundhogs.

Dupree Bates and I were talking the other day. The subject of these interesting and pervasive animals spirited its way into our conversation.

“They can be a real problem,” he said. “Farmers break tractor axles when they run over their burrows in fields. They eat a mess of beans and other crops.”

He said up in the Barto area of Pennsylvania, they have big groundhog dinners. “The fire companies put them on. People go out and shoot four or five of them a day, and they know how to cook them. Of course, that’s the older people. The younger people these days don’t know how to skin them or cook them.”

I allowed as how groundhogs have to be some of God’s most successful and sensible creatures. “Have you ever seen a skinny one? They go to sleep underground for four or five months when it’s cold, and they still come out looking roly-poly.”

About three weeks ago I was inspecting the vines in Nassau Valley Vineyards during an afternoon walk. Right below one of the trellises, 10 yards away, there was a little groundhog up on some of the mounded burrow dirt, looking around. When we made eye contact, it scurried back into the hole. I edged over to take a look and there, staring right in my face, was an angry-looking mama woodchuck just below ground level with the bright sun of the day shining off her big yellow incisors. She bared them in a threatening fashion. Knowing better than to mess with a wild animal protecting its young, I figured I had seen enough.

Large rodents, groundhogs are related to squirrels, can grow as large as 30 pounds when they’re feeding on a steady diet of fresh young soybeans, and will stand on their rear legs and whistle when they want to alert other members of their family to danger. So, in addition to groundhog and woodchuck, they’re also known as whistle pigs. They can also climb trees like their scurrying cousins and won’t hesitate to swim to escape a fox or eagle.

Given the number of groundhogs I’ve been seeing lately around Sussex, it might be time for one of the local fire halls to consider a fundraising event centered around roasted groundhog. Oyster Eat, Shrimp Feast, Groundhog and Dumpling Festival? Nice ring, huh?

Maybe Dupree can rustle up a recipe from some of his Barto people, and it might just be off-centered enough for Sam to consider a commemorative ale.

This might be an idea worth sleeping on for a few months.