Tiny Treasures

As a wildlife biologist in field research, my job description can change with the seasons and almost entirely depends on my current study or project. Presently, I work for Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG) as a field technician for a population monitoring project and I’d like to take today to introduce you to my study animal, who has quickly become one of my favorite little creatures on the planet.

The northern Idaho ground squirrel (NIDGS – fondly pronounced as “nidge”, or “nidges”, by our research team) is a small, burrowing mammal that lives only in montane meadows and grasslands with scattered sagebrush at 3,000 – 5,500 feet elevation. About six inches in length, they have light, reddish-brown fur with faint white flecks along their backs, cream-colored bellies, and a rusty brown nose. NIDGS are only active above ground for a few months out of the year – from about early April to early August, depending on when the snow melts at their meadow’s altitude. Pups emerge around mid-June, and are the last to go back underground for the winter months. They hibernate the remaining 7 to 8 months of the year. Although they are solitary animals, population densities can be high in areas of abundant food. They munch primarily on succulent vegetation and bulbs in the spring, and flowers and grass seeds in early summer.

As ground-dwelling squirrels, NIDGS play an important role in the ecology of their montane meadow ecosystems by increasing soil fertility, increasing plant productivity, and loosening, moving, mixing, and aerating soils (to name a few of the incredible services they provide). They are also an important prey base for predator food chains. For example, badgers – one of their predominant predators – create large burrows when digging to search for ground squirrels. These “badger digs” go on to provide homes for burrowing owls, rabbits, insects, and other species.

NIDGS are endemic to Idaho, meaning this is the only place they can be found in the wild! Unfortunately, they are also critically endangered and in great need of serious conservation measures to protect their estimated 30 remaining populations, totalling less than 500 individuals when all the populations are added together. They are no longer found across their historical geographic range, and today, they exist as small, widely scattered populations isolated from each other – most of which are separated by unsuitable habitat such as dense forests or urban sprawl. West-central Idaho (specifically Adams and Valley counties) is the only enduring home for these little squirrels. Because NIDGS habitat has become disconnected, individuals can no longer move between populations. Therefore, genetic diversity among these dwindling localized populations is severely limited. The old saying “where there’s one ground squirrel, there’s bound to be more” is now more likely to be “where there’s one ground squirrel, there’s a place we ought to protect because there probably aren’t many more out there.”

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be featuring the writings of other scientists and colleagues I greatly respect and admire. However, this brief introduction to northern Idaho ground squirrels is only the first installment of a small series I am writing to cover their biology and conservation concerns. Stay tuned as we burrow deeper into the lives of these amazing tiny treasures in the coming months.

Yensen, Eric, and Paul W. Sherman. Ground-Dwelling Squirrels of the Pacific Northwest. 2003.

“The future of wildlife and the habitat that they depend on is being destroyed. It is time to make nature and all the beauty living within it our priority.” ~ Paul Oxton

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