How A Southern Idaho Ground Squirrel Study Could Help Protect The Environment

Nov 4, 2013

Southern Idaho ground squirrels are found only in the Gem State and are a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act. In May, we told you about a project to give some of these squirrels a new home near Horseshoe Bend to study ways to boost their numbers. Now, scientists know a bit more about this squirrel.

Kristin Lohr was a graduate student at Boise State University when she started looking at where Southern Idaho Ground Squirrels like to make their homes. They’re found in just a few areas in Adams, Gem, Payette, and Washington counties. Lohr went there and studied vegetation and soil types.

Credit U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

She found the soil has to be just right for squirrels to make their burrows. “You found higher densities of squirrels in areas with more perennial vegetation, more forbs, so more of the flowering plants, and higher species diversity, so a lot of different plants in the area,” says Lohr. 

That’s important as more of the squirrel’s habitat is taken over by exotic, or non-native, plants like cheatgrass.

Scientists need to know what squirrels eat and where they live before relocating the animals to new habitat.  But Lohr says this information is also vital for restoring native habitat that’s been degraded by people or by fire. That’s when the squirrels become the canary in the coal mine for the rest of the environment.

“It’s not just about the squirrel," says Lohr. "We’re talking about a whole ecosystem that has been degraded from native shrub steppe habitat. This is an area where big game would benefit, grouse would benefit, the squirrels would benefit. Even if you look at it from a livestock grazing [aspect], livestock would benefit with improved conditions out there.”

Lohr’s study was recently published in the Journal of Wildlife Management. Her research could help scientists protect and restore the squirrel’s habitat.

Copyright 2013 Boise State Public Radio