BLM wildlife biologists in Idaho’s Boise District received valuable assistance in April when volunteers took to the field to “hunt” for squirrels—the Southern Idaho Ground Squirrel, to be specific, a “candidate species” currently under consideration for possible listing under the Endangered Species Act. For this project, volunteers from the Public Lands Foundation (PLF) joined forces with Defenders of Wildlife (DOW) members to count the number of squirrels present in several study areas selected by BLM biologists.
The ground squirrel population in southern Idaho has declined dramatically over the past 30 years. The small mammal’s habitat is threatened by the encroachment of medusahead, an invasive weed that is spreading rapidly because of increasingly frequent fires. The squirrels are not that easy to count and timing is critical, since they spend a good portion of their lives underground. They emerge from hibernation early in the year, have an active feeding and breeding season above ground, and then return to their burrows in early summer.
During the April 21st survey, the volunteers monitored only a small portion of the squirrel’s habitat and found only 7 squirrels, although numerous squirrels were spotted in other parts of the habitat area. The monitoring was undertaken to gauge the success of BLM rehabilitation efforts following a wildfire in 2006. By planting native grasses and forbs, BLM hopes to improve habitat for the squirrel.
The project provided a perfect opportunity for local members of Defenders of Wildlife to engage in real on-the-ground action to conserve wildlife—with guidance from PLF volunteers. As part of DOW’s recently established Wildlife Volunteer Corps, members received an alert about the Idaho project and nearly 20 volunteers responded, including a group of teen-aged science students and their teachers.
It’s hard to say who benefited most from the one-day event—BLM biologists who got some much-needed help with monitoring…BLM retirees who enjoyed camaraderie with old friends and a chance to get back in the field again…or DOW members who made a real contribution to wildlife conservation and learned first-hand about the challenges involved. In the long run, of course, projects like these also benefit ground squirrels, their habitat, and the public lands.