Sunday, April 1, 2012

Squirrel Facts: The Endangered Mount Graham Red Squirrel

Today I am featuring another endangered squirrel. The Mount Graham red squirrel is a subspecies of the North American red squirrel. It lives only in the Pinaleno Mountains of southeastern Arizona, where it has been isolated from other red squirrels since the end of the last ice age about 10,000 years ago. It was believed in the 1950s that this squirrel had become extinct, but it was rediscovered in the 1970s, and was given endangered status under the Endangered Species Act in 1987.

Physically, the Mount Graham red squirrel is smaller than most North American red squirrels. It weighs only 8 ounces, and measures 8 inches in length, with a tail 6 inches long. It's tail lacks the white fringe that is displayed by most red squirrels. It inhabits cool, moist spruce-fir and mixed conifer forests at the higher elevations in the Pinaleno Mountains, where it eats mostly seeds, conifer cones, and fungi.

The Mount Graham red squirrel has been devastated by habitat loss, drought, and forest fires. It has been estimated that from 2001-2009 the population dropped from around 350 to around 250 individuals.

This species has been involved in controversy due to the construction of the University of Arizona's Mount Graham International Observatory within its range. The observatory was built in the early 1990s, and with additional construction projects planned, continues to come under fire from conservation groups for its impact on the squirrels' habitat.

The Mount Graham red squirrel also made the news in 2010 when the Arizona Department of Transportation announced plans to spend $1.25 million on conservation measures to reduce mortality of the squirrels due to cars. Unfortunately the plan, which included the construction of rope bridges across two highways that pass through the squirrels' range as well as additional monitoring of the squirrels' numbers, was met with loud protests from right-wing politicians and pundits and was subsequently canceled.

This tiny but unique squirrel clearly faces an uphill battle for survival. Fortunately, the Mount Graham Red Squirrel does have some friends. There is a group, the Mount Graham Coalition, that is dedicated to preserving the area's ecosystem and species, including the red squirrels.