The Northern Idaho Ground Squirrel is an Idaho endemic;is found only in west-central Idaho. This area consists of five counties which have an elevation between 1,150 and 1,550 meters. It requires forest meadows for habitat. Intensive forestry management – some would say mis-management – and extreme wildfire events have destroyed much of that habitat. And so the species is critically threatened. There may be as few as 500 individuals left in the wild.
Part of the threat is recreational hunting. The State of Idaho permits squirrel shooting and doesn’t require the killed animals be used or salvaged. Among a certain segment of Idaho’s population “squirrel popping” is regarded as high entertainment. Squirrel Poppers aren’t as discriminating in target selection as they might be. In an effort to educate the public that all ground squirrels are not the same, the Payette National Forest has created an interpretative trail focused on the Idaho ground squirrels at Lost Reservoir, not far from New Meadows, Idaho. WC headed out there this past weekend to look for squirrels.
On a west-exposed hill, the Forest Service has created an man-made meadow, seriously thinning trees, doing some selective burning and making science’s best understanding of ideal Idaho Ground Squirrel habitat. the site is home to a few Northern Idaho Ground Squirrels, and several of their cousins. WC set about searching for the target species.
Yes, this is the same species as Alaska’s, just in a grey color phase. Although this particular specimen could stand to lose some weight. But it’s not the target species. Moving along.
Chipmunks were everywhere. The most common is the Least Chipmunk, North America’s most widely dispersed chipmunk. It’s a highly adaptive species, found from the Yukon Territory to the sagebrush steppe. But it’s not the target species, either. Still looking.
The Columbia Ground Squirrel, the larger, redder cousin to the target species, has a range that extends from British Columbia to Oregon to Idaho. If anything, it is even redder than it appears in this photo. But this isn’t the target species, either. Keep looking.
There was movement over there on the right. Oh, not a squirrel at all, it’s a fawn. Not sure about whether it is a White-tailed or a Mule; deer fawns all kind of look the same. Nor did WC want to spook it into even more danger. We’ll keep moving along.
And then this guy popped up. Hmm. Smaller than a Columbian but that’s a lot of reddish fur. Weird right ear, too. We need to see the paws and chest to get better field marks.
And eventually the little guy cooperated. While the russet wash on the neck and shoulders isn’t shown in field guides, by the size – a little more than half that of the Columbian – and overall coloration, it sure could be a Northern Idaho Ground Squirrel. But wait, there’s confirmation.
The same squirrel, and a lousy photo, but it shows the back of both ears and, obviously, this squirrel is thoroughly banded.1 And WC and Mrs WC ran into two biologists who were banding Northern Idaho Ground Squirrels. So unless they made a pretty dreadful mistake, this is the clincher.
Did WC mention these little guys move like greased lightning? This animal is in mid-leap, and even at 1/1000th of a second, there’s a bit of a blur around the head. But, still, WC is pretty happy with the experience. They are not easy to find, but they are there. For a while longer, at least.
Hey, Secretary Zinke, don’t you think it would be pretty sad if this species joined the embarrassingly long list of animals we’ve extirpated from the planet? And one your watch?
- WC has an embarrassing gift for photographing banded critters. Add this to that list. ↩