Piute ground squirrels (Spermophilus mollis idahoensis) are normally above ground from late January until late June or early July in the Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area in southwestern Idaho. In 2002 they were rarely seen above ground after early May. Because of the ecological importance of ground squirrels for nesting raptors and other species, we sought to determine the reasons for their early disappearance. We sampled 12 sites from January 2003 through March 2003 to determine if a population crash had occurred in 2002. Tests indicated that Piute ground squirrels had not been exposed to plague within the past year. The presence of yearlings in the population indicated that squirrels reproduced in 2002 and that at least some yearlings survived the winter. Both yearling and adult squirrels appeared to be reproducing at or above normal rates in 2003. The most plausible explanation for the early disappearance of Piute ground squirrels in 2002 is that squirrels entered seasonal torpor early in response to a late spring drought. In addition, the breeding chronology of squirrels may have shifted during the past 2 decades in response to climate change and/or habitat alteration. Shrub habitats provide a more favorable and stable environment for squirrels than grass habitats. Squirrel abundance was higher on live-trapping grids with sagebrush than on grids dominated by grass, and squirrel masses were higher at sites dominated by shrubs and Sandberg bluegrass (Poa secunda). Densities in big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) were within the ranges reported for earlier years, but densities in grass were lower than previously reported. Low densities at grassland sites in 2003 support other findings that drought affects squirrels in altered grass communities more than those in native shrub habitats. Long-term shifts in ground squirrel breeding chronology may have implications for raptors that depend on them for food.
Additional publication details
Populations and habitat relationships of Piute ground squirrels in southwest Idaho