Tag Archives: conservation

Q&A: Phoenix Zoo Aims to Save the Mount Graham Red Squirrel

A Mount Graham red squirrel at the Phoenix Zoo | Courtesy of the Phoenix Zoo

A Mount Graham red squirrel at the Phoenix Zoo | Courtesy of the Phoenix Zoo

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


Filed under Make a Difference, Mother Nature, Q&A

Fish and Wildlife Service Officially Designates Critical Habitat for Jaguars

Jaguar | Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Jaguar | Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Good news for Arizona’s elusive jaguars: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has officially designated nearly 1,200 square miles in Arizona and New Mexico as “critical habitat” for jaguars. Under the Endangered Species Act, the designation prevents the federal government from approving any development project that would render the land unfit for jaguars.

As Ruth Rudner reported in Spotted in Southern Arizona, a story in our upcoming April issue, the Fish and Wildlife Service had designated about 850,000 acres in Southeastern Arizona and Southwestern New Mexico as critical habitat for the species. The revised designation, about 765,000 acres, excludes land on the Tohono O’odham Nation and at Fort Huachuca; in both those areas, efforts to preserve the jaguars’ habitat have already been implemented, the service said in a news release.

The designation will not halt development of the controversial Rosemont copper mine. A Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman told The Arizona Republic that the mine project had been extensively studied and deemed OK to go forward.

To learn more about the world’s third-largest cats and their history in our state, pick up our April issue when it hits newsstands later this month.


Filed under Mother Nature, News

Mexican Gray Wolf Arrives at Scottsdale Sanctuary

Courtesy of Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center

She doesn’t exactly have a name, but Fox Mountain F1188, a Mexican Gray Wolf that was recently captured in New Mexico, has finally arrived at the Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center (SWCC) in Scottsdale. Last August, the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service issued an order for the lethal removal of F1188 for the depredation of cattle. SWCC offered to pay for her live capture and give her sanctuary at the center. Though she lost her freedom in the wild, F1188 is safe and sound… SWCC is reporting that she’s in good health, eating well and settling into her new environment. Eventually, she’ll be introduced to another Mexican wolf, so she’ll have a companion.

Below, a spokesperson for SWCC talked to us about F1188’s new life and why conservation is so important:

Why was her arrival at the conservation center important? 
Her arrival at the Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center was important in several ways.  It was due to the compassion we have for these wild creatures that we offered to trade her execution for a life in captivity at SWCC.  Because, there are so few Mexican wolves in existence, we feel each is a valuable contribution to the gene pool, and the species as a whole. We also hope that her story will inspire people to become aware of the problems, as well as the successes, of the reintroduction program, and to become more involved to ensure a future for these wolves.

What will happen to her over the next few days/weeks?
Over the next few weeks, F1188 will settle down in her new home and become acquainted with her new routine and wolf neighbors. SWCC currently houses 16 Mexican wolves, and we’re an important partner in the Mexican Wolf Species Survival Plan — although we do not receive any federal or state support for their care. Eventually, F1188 will be placed with another wolf as her companion.

Why is conservation important?
The conservation of the Mexican wolf is important as the species was a key predator that was missing from the landscape for a century. Returning the Gray wolf to the northwestern U.S., especially in the Yellowstone area, has benefited the environment as a whole, and brought it closer to a balanced system. However, restoring wolves in the southwest is a very controversial program with political implications mainly stemming from livestock operations. True recovery of the Mexican wolf will entail compromise among several groups, but the wild lands will be healthier for it. And the wolves will be back where they belong.

What does F1188 look like?
F1188 is a magnificent animal with the features of a classical Mexican wolf. Looking at her photo, you can see the typical coloration of this species. She is on the small side, weighing approximately 50 pounds, but the Mexican wolves have always been the smallest of the gray wolves. She is active and alert, and seems to be adjusting well to her new life. Although we are sad that she was removed from her family and life in the wild, we’re glad we were given the opportunity to offer her sanctuary for the rest of her life.

SWCC tours are guided tours and by appointment only. For more information call 480-471-3621 or visit http://www.southwestwildlife.org.




Filed under Eco Issues, Mother Nature