With only about 240 Mount Graham red squirrels left in the wild, the species’ population is running dangerously low. Once thought to be extinct, the squirrels — identified by their small bodies and narrow heads — are now the focus of a one-and-only Mount Graham red squirrel breeding program being developed at the Phoenix Zoo.
Specially equipped with staffing and resources, the zoo’s Conservation Center hopes to one day provide squirrels for release into newly developed habitats, or into existing areas where there no longer are active squirrel middens. Stuart Wells, director of conservation science at the zoo, answered a few questions about the disappearing species and the challenges the program faces.
Tell us about the Mount Graham red squirrel.
The Mount Graham red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus grahamensis) has been isolated within the upper regions of the Pinaleño Mountains of Southeastern Arizona for an estimated 10,000 years following the receding of glacial bodies, causing an island effect. This is the only location of this subspecies in the world. The squirrel was listed as endangered in 1987 because of its limited distribution, reduction of habitat and threats to existing habitat. These listing factors were caused by anthropogenic (human-caused) factors, as well as by naturally occurring conditions. The population estimates have remained at or below 300 for the past 10 years.
Why did the Phoenix Zoo decide to start a breeding program for the squirrel?
In 2006, the zoo answered a call from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help develop a pilot breeding program. Their concern was raised due to the prevalence of drought conditions, and the fact that no viable ex situ (off-site) reproductive efforts had ever been achieved.
In 2011, while we were in the process of obtaining the breeding permit, Mount Graham was experiencing the worst drought since the last wildfire. The Fish and Wildlife Service asked us to hold an emergency-action population of squirrels, at least until the threat of wildfire had abated. We took in four squirrels at that time and began collecting information necessary to develop basic care standards and housing requirements.
Walk us through the efforts at the Phoenix Zoo to help maintain the population.
Currently, we house two adult male Mount Graham red squirrels. They are both considered to be in excellent health, although we have had some challenges at keeping them within goal weight. This appears to be a function of metabolic changes associated with the season, rather than a problem with dietary intake. We have developed a system for regulating their dietary intake based upon seasonal metabolic changes to maintain ideal body weight.
The two females that we were holding died suddenly within a week of one another in July of 2012. We believe that stress related to visual proximity to the other squirrels may have contributed.
The males are housed in separate enclosures, and a visual barrier is in place to reduce stress. Each enclosure is also equipped with two nesting boxes. The squirrels typically choose one box to sleep in, and one box is used to cache food and other items, such as walnut shells, chewed pine cones, bones, etc., thus acting as a midden.
The squirrels are provided with artificial light on a timed schedule consistent with seasonal changes, as well as natural light via windows located at the facility. The building where the squirrels are housed is maintained at 65 degrees year-round to keep them acclimated to the average temperatures occurring in their natural habitat.
What challenges does the program face?
It is challenging to develop an ex situ breeding program for this species. Both genders are highly territorial and defend the boundaries of their midden from other squirrels. The only time this territoriality is relaxed is when the female is receptive for breeding. Field studies have determined that the window of receptivity for females is only a few hours for one day of the year. At the breeding center, we must determine when that window is accessible, and for how long. If introductions are conducted at the wrong time, the squirrels could inflict serious injury to each other as a result of their territoriality.
We use a variety of tools to help us determine this window. We will use behavioral observations and observable changes in physiology. Zoo professionals have a particular expertise in developing ex situ animal husbandry protocols as a result of being charged to maintain animals, outside of their natural habitats. The Conservation Center focuses on developing breeding programs for species that are intended to be returned to the wild. This adds another layer of complication because it is important to maintain the behavioral and sociological components necessary for predator avoidance and breeding.
We welcome these challenges and look forward to developing a successful breeding program for the Mount Graham red squirrel.
— Kirsten Kraklio
Some news from our good friends at the U.S. Forest Service:
The Black Mesa Ranger District on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests plans to open the paved portion of Forest Roads 300 and 105, access to Woods Canyon Lake and the Store on Thursday, March 20, 2014. At this time visitation to the Woods Canyon Lake Area will be for day use only.
Woods Canyon Lake Store and Marina will open to visitors but all developed campgrounds across the district will remain closed until May 1, 2014. However, visitors wishing to camp may do so along Forest Road 171, located 3 1/2 miles southeast of Woods Canyon Lake, behind the Mogollon Rim Visitor’s Center. Other areas open for dispersed camping include: Larson Ridge on Forest Road 237 directly west of Forest Lakes; Forest Road 300, east of Forest Lakes in the Black Canyon Lake area; and Forest Road 122. No water or developed facilities are available in these dispersed areas and campers are reminded the Apache-Sitgreaves is a ‘Pack-it-In, Pack-it-Out’ forest. We ask that visitors be considerate of others by maintaining a clean campsite during their stay and removing all evidence of their visit when departing. Leaving trash in the forest is illegal, unsightly, and can be deadly to wildlife.
The gravel portion of Forest Road 300 beyond Woods Canyon Lake will remain closed until Friday, March 28, to allow road crews to complete a significant reconstruction project. This ongoing construction project is being done to provide a higher quality road surface for users throughout the 2014 recreation season.
Forest visitors should come prepared for changing weather conditions. Roads may be muddy and impassable at any time of the year and four wheel drive vehicles are recommended. Carry extra clothing, blankets, food, water, and a cell phone. Even when road surfaces are dry, shoulders and dispersed campsites may still be saturated and muddy. Please check ground conditions before leaving developed roads and avoid creating ruts and other resource damage.
Looking to getaway from the daily grind or just searching for some peace and quiet? Well, our friends at the Forest Service might have what you’re looking for. The national forests of Arizona’s Rooms with a View cabin rental program offers both comfortable and rustic accommodation in several national forests. And now, Coronado National Forest has added three more cabins to its roster. Check it out:
The Coronado National Forest has completed the renovation of three cabins located on the Douglas and Santa Catalina Ranger Districts. The Portal Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) House and the Portal Bunkhouse are located in Cave Creek Canyon, Approximately 1.5 miles west of Portal, Arizona. The Palisades Ranger Residence Cabin (pictured) is located within the Palisades Administrative Site, 20 miles north of Tucson in the Santa Catalina Mountains.
Recreation fees will include day and overnight use of each of the cabins. The Portal CCC House ($125.00/night) has four rooms and can accommodate up to five people. The house contains two bedrooms (one with a full size bed, the second with a set of bunkbeds), one bathroom, a living room/kitchen combination, a fully-equipped kitchen, and an outdoor patio.
The Portal Bunkhouse ($100.00/night) with its three rooms can accommodate up to four people. The bunkhouse contains one bedroom (with a bunkbed and twin bed), one bathroom, a living room/kitchen combination, and a fully-equipped kitchen.
Palisades Ranger Residence Cabin ($125.00/night) has five rooms and can accommodate up to four people. The cabin contains one bedroom (with a bunkbed), one full bathroom, a dining room, a living room, a fully-equipped kitchen, and an enclosed yard.
Reservations may be made by contacting the Forest Service National Recreation Reservation Service, ReserveAmerica, 1-877-444-6777 or http://www.reserveamerica.com beginning March 19. (The Portal Bunkhouse will not be available for rental until April 16.) In addition to the daily rental fee, a $9.00 service fee will be charged for each reservation. The reservation service also has information about renting and reserving other Forest Service facilities, including those offered under the Arizona “Rooms with a View” Cabin Rental program.