Ground Squirrels

The rock squirrel, one of 13 species of ground dwelling squirrels in Idaho, can only be found in the extreme southeast corner of the state.

I went into the visitor center to play, “Stump Gretchen.” Gretchen was an affable ranger working the Q&A counter at Capitol Reef National Park. So far, she had been able to answer all our questions but this time I thought I might have her.

I described a ground dwelling squirrel, one I had never seen before, and asked her what it was. She was indeed stumped. Then she pulled out a reference book. No, it wasn’t any of the squirrels in that book. Then she consulted another and with triumph in her eyes, announced, “Rock squirrel.” Sure enough, there it was, a squirrel found only in the most extreme southeastern Idaho, but apparently more common in Southern Utah.

Include the hoary marmot we saw near Juneau, Alaska and we had added two species of Idaho’s ground dwelling squirrels to our life lists in nearly as many months. They just weren’t in Idaho.

Ground dwelling squirrels include what we commonly refer to as ground squirrels. These are further divided into antelope, rock and mantled squirrels as well as the true ground squirrels of which there are two groups; small-eared, large-eared. Marmots and woodchucks are also included as ground dwelling squirrels.

In the Pacific Northwest of Idaho, Oregon and Washington, there are a total of 19 species of ground dwelling squirrels, not counting the distantly related chipmunks, of which there are eight species. With 13 species, Idaho has the most diversity.

For years, ground dwelling squirrels haven’t been considered much more than targets for plinking. Over the past several decades though, people have begun to realize the unique and important contributions of ground dwelling squirrels.

Like beavers, ground squirrels and marmots are ecosystem engineers. As squirrels create extensive tunnels underground, they move and aerate tons of soil. This in turn improves water infiltration, reduces soil compaction, improves soil fertility and increases plant production. Their digging also brings buried seeds to the surface, improving plant diversity.

In their role at the bottom of the food chain they provide nourishment for a wide number of predators. Snakes, coyotes, foxes, hawks, badgers and more all depend upon ground squirrel kin. As a side benefit of badger predation, the holes that badgers create when digging for ground squirrels later serve as homes for burrowing owls and rabbits.

Ground dwelling squirrels are also manic-depressives. During the four to five months of spring and summer, they are feverishly raising a family of 4-14 kits, while at the same time trying to put on layers of fat. They will need that fat to get them through the next 7-8 months of true hibernation where body temperature, heart rate and breathing all drop significantly.

Ground squirrels have suffered a lot since European settlement. They have been shot, poisoned and flooded to make way for other land uses. The longest lasting persecution though has been habitat fragmentation, creating isolated populations. Once cut off from other squirrels, gene flow ceases. Populations then also become far more susceptible to anything that can wipe them out such as weather events, fires or indiscriminate hunting.

Ground squirrels are a fascinating and important part of the natural world. A quick look at the list of 19 species in the Pacific Northwest tells me that the rock squirrel that Gretchen helped me identify is just the beginning of the squirrels I need to see. I will be reaching for my Guide to Mammals every time I see a ground squirrel.

Wildlife License Plates

Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.

No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.

Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.

Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program.

I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), The Best of Nature is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version here

Copies are also available at:

Post Register

Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls

Idaho Falls Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center (425 Capital)

Perfect Light Photo Supply

Work Wearhouse

Museum of Idaho

Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming

Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho