Saturday, November 23, 2013

More Good News For the Mount Graham Red Squirrel

The Mount Graham red squirrel is in the news again, with some encouraging results of a recent census. The survey conducted by the Arizona Game and Fish Department, US Forest Service, and US Fish and Wildlife Service found an estimated population of the endangered squirrel at 272, a substantial increase from the 213 squirrels found in last year's survey.

This isolated subspecies of the North American red squirrel lives only at high elevations in a mountainous area of southeastern Arizona. Its numbers have dwindled in recent decades due to habitat loss, forest fire, and drought. It was once believed to be extinct, before being rediscovered in the 1970s. The recent increase in numbers may be the result of a healthy growing year for the pinecones that make up much of this squirrel's diet. However, overall numbers are still low enough to make this species vulnerable to any event, such as a forest fire, that could devastate the population in one fell swoop.

Efforts to restore the population of the Mount Graham red squirrel have had mixed results. Habitat conservation is the most important step. An effort a few years to build a series of rope bridges across a highway that traverses the squirrels' territory was, unfortunately, defeated due to state budget cuts. A captive breeding program being considered at the Phoenix Zoo may also help supplement this squirrel's numbers.

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